'The Right Stuff': An Iconic Space Story That Never Takes Flight
In 1972, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner sent New Journalism titan Tom Wolfe to cover Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon. While researching the piece, Wolfe fell in love with the stories of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, and instead churned out a four-part series of articles titled “Post-Orbital Remorse,” which he then adapted into the 1979 book The Right Stuff, which in turn was adapted by Philip Kaufman into a 1983 movie, and this weekend becomes — kind of, sort of — a new streaming series for the National Geographic hub of Disney+.
In the original article, written in the voice of a Mercury astronaut lecturing Wolfe on the mysteries of their profession, “the right stuff” is an unspoken competition among test pilots: “It’s like a huge and very complex pyramid, miles high, and the idea is to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you are one of the elected and anointed ones who have the right stuff and can move ever higher and even — ultimately, God willing, one day — that you might be able to join that very special few at the very top, that elite who truly have the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of The Right Stuff itself.”
Previous versions of The Right Stuff were alternately worshipful and skeptical of all the myth-making surrounding those early days of the space race. They contrasted genuine, anonymous American heroism — typified by Chuck Yeager, the legendary test pilot who became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound — with the very public, manufactured kind that NASA’s PR team worked so hard to make out of the Mercury 7. Then the book and movie considered the possibility that, despite all the hoopla surrounding America’s first “star voyagers,” there was something as fundamentally brave about their stage-managed public adventures as there was about Yeager’s quiet pioneering. Both versions are masterpieces of their respective forms, racing across a tightrope between hilarious satire and rousing Americana without ever once seeming in danger of falling.
The Right Stuff TV show, developed by Mark Lafferty, is definitely not a masterpiece of its form. Nor is it particularly interested in interrogating different brands of heroism. And it doesn’t care at all about Chuck Yeager, who was the breakout character of previous versions (Sam Shepard was the film’s lone acting Oscar nominee) and is not so much as mentioned, let alone seen, in the series.
No, this Right Stuff is not trying to push the outer edge of the envelope, or make it to the top of the pyramid. After translating a handful of Wolfe’s scenes for the first episode, the show is content to be a dutiful, mostly competent, infrequently lively historical workplace drama. If you don’t know the 1983 movie (more than worth the rental fee on the service of your choice), or haven’t seen From the Earth to the Moon or Apollo 13, or a half-dozen other great scripted or unscripted accounts of the space race, then it’s… fine? It has some solid, if unremarkable, performances, and occasional moments that capture those heady, dangerous days when seven men competed to be the first to strap himself on top of a giant bomb and hopefully survive the trip. But it lacks the courage or charisma of the men (and, at times, women) whose stories it’s telling.
The first sign of an absence of conviction comes just minutes into the premiere. We begin with the two Mercury 7 alpha males — swaggering Naval aviator Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) and morally upright celebrity Marine pilot John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) — staying competitive with one another even in the final hours before what seems to be the program’s first manned mission. We see them run, shave, and eat a hearty breakfast, each trying to get an edge over the other in whatever tiny way possible. And then suddenly, we have jumped two years into the past, as the series begins the long and winding road to that scene.
When done well — say, the Breaking Bad or Alias pilots, or the season of Hannibal that opened with Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter trying to kill each other in Hannibal’s kitchen — beginning in media res can be a thrilling device. More often than not, it’s roughly what you get here: creators without faith that the story they’re about to tell is interesting enough, so they decide to start in the middle at a theoretically more exciting point (narrator: it’s rarely an exciting point) and then jump backwards. And The Right Stuff does it twice within the space of five episodes!
You can understand why Lafferty might feel the material — or, at least, his version of it — needs some juicing. There are seven astronauts and several prominent NASA figures to cover — notably administrator Bob Gilruth, played by Patrick Fischler, and flight director Chris Kraft, played by Eric Ladin(*) — but for the most part, the show only cares about three people.
(*) This is actually the second show to debut in the last 12 months featuring Ladin as a famous NASA flight controller, since he played Gene Kranz in the first season of Apple’s For All Mankind. Given the absurd abundance of NASA-adjacent shows over the past few years — see also Away, The First, Space Force, Avenue 5, and Showtime’s upcoming Moonbase 8 — it was inevitable that some of them would have to double-dip with actors. And it’s hard to ding The Right Stuff in this case, since the last actor to play Gene Kranz was… Ed Harris, who was in the Kaufman film as John Glenn. But the overlap keeps coming, like the introduction of aspiring female astronaut Jerrie Cobb, who’s also a significant For All Mankind character (there called Molly).
Two of those essential players are Shepard and Glenn, the former representing all the clichés of the reckless and philandering flyboy, the latter his self-righteous spiritual opposite. The third is Gordo Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), who in other tellings was a cocky hot dog (Dennis Quaid at his Dennis Quaid-iest played him in the movie) and here is meant to be the series’ emotional fulcrum, torn between his desire to be like Glenn and his fear that he’s exactly like Shepard. The problem is that the characters are written very superficially, with the same one or two beats hit again and again. McDorman, Adams, and O’Donohue are all fairly convincing as confident risk-takers, but there’s not a lot that they can do with what little they’re given to play. A subplot in one episode about Shepard’s wife Louise (Shannon Lucio) taking in her orphaned niece has nothing to do with the space program, but McDorman almost seems relieved to have some varied material for once. In the movie, Kaufman and Harris figured out how to make Glenn both a paragon of virtue and the most convincingly arrogant member of the group; Adams’ Glenn is mostly just dull. He could be an accountant just as easily as an astronaut.
Shepard, Glenn, and Cooper were three of the movie’s five main characters (Yeager and red-ass astronaut Gus Grissom, played here by Michael Trotter, were the others), but the five episodes of the series made available to critics offer less insight into each man than the film did. Nor does the show take advantage of its extended time to explore the other astronauts — prankster Wally Schirra is only noticeable, for instance, because he’s played by Aaron Staton, who, like Fischler and Ladin, is familiar with the period from his days on Mad Men — or to dig deeper into NASA itself. It’s fun, for instance, that our first glimpse of the agency is just Gilruth and Kraft operating out of an otherwise empty, ramshackle office, and to picture the process of getting from there to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in only a decade. But the show’s interest in NASA’s inner workings waxes and (mostly) wanes, with huge steps being skipped over so that Gordo and wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford) can have another argument about his history of infidelity, or Shepard can puff out his chest at Glenn again.
The show is at times clever in depicting the process of turning these seven men — most of them intensely private and bordering on monosyllabic — into folk heroes. Josh Cooke plays Loudon Wainwright Jr.(*), the Life magazine writer who became the Mercury 7’s official profiler. In exchange for exclusive access, he agrees to redact the parts that Shepard and company don’t want their adoring fans — or wives — to know about, and isn’t above outright invention when necessary. “Fact by way of fiction,” he argues, “can bring us closer to the truth itself.”
(*) Father of singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and grandfather of Rufus Wainwright.
But this Right Stuff doesn’t have much to say beyond observing the basic dichotomy between the astronauts’ superhuman images and their extremely fallible behavior. The story crawls along incrementally without using all that time to let us know its characters as anything but the broadest of archetypes. Outside of one strong scene where the guys share stories of near-fatal test flights, there’s barely any sense of how they function as a group. When Gilruth asks them to vote for who they think should get the all-important first mission, we know why Glenn does poorly — most of the guys resent him for being a glory hog and a killjoy — but not why the winner gets so many votes.
Early on, Gordo’s Air Force commanding officer tells him, “Complexity can be confusing.” This unfortunately feels like the philosophy of the series as a whole. Telling a complicated, tumultuous tale in such slow, simplistic fashion raises the question of why anyone involved (including Leonardo DiCaprio, whose production company is behind the project) wanted to try it again. The Kaufman movie is a classic, but an extremely specific one that left room for lots of other approaches in terms of focus and tone. The TV show is almost defiantly generic in every way. It doesn’t entirely screw the pooch, to use another bit of test-pilot lingo that Wolfe’s book popularized. But nor does it seem interested in going higher, farther, or faster than any version of this story we’ve seen so often before.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Bill Conti music to listen to.
The first two episodes of The Right Stuff premiere October 9th on Disney+, with additional installments being released weekly.
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