‘The Right Stuff’ Is an Energetic Look at America’s Early Astronauts and Their Bouts With Celebrity
Disney’s update of “The Right Stuff” is both pure Americana and a vintage study of our celebrity culture. It has a classic form of heroism, the kind where historical figures become rowdy, fun characters, but its more subtle theme is how doing great things irrevocably alters the lives of those involved. On that level insightful viewers can enjoy this limited series, but as a general piece of Disney entertainment it’s also a fun and exciting adventure.
The series opens in 1959, when the United States is racing to catch up to the Soviet Union as the Cold War enters the space age. The Soviets have launched Sputnik and it’s up to NASA to select a team to take the U.S. beyond the atmosphere. Engineers Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) begin putting together candidates from the country’s top test pilots. There are plenty to choose from and from 100, 7 are selected for what will be forever known as the Mercury Program. Most notable in the “Mercury 7” is John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), who at 38 is already considered older than the norm, but he’s the spitting image of American patriotism. Joining him are Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty) and Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton). Even before they get anywhere near space and begin an intense marathon of training the astronauts instantly become celebrities. As the age of John F. Kennedy dawns, so does a new era of celebrity. The pilots suddenly become tabloid sensations overnight and they learn that taking part in history means turning your whole world upside down.
This is the second major version of “The Right Stuff,” which was originally a major book by the great Tom Wolfe. In 1983 it was adapted into an Oscar-winning classic by Philip Kaufman that still soars whenever revisited. It is the movie that the series is officially based on, or at least its screenplay per the credits. Yet it’s also its own thing since it stretches the narrative out into eight episodes. The first chapters are very spaceless, they are instead about the personalities involved in the Mercury Program and how the Cold War turned them into instant household names. It’s not a revisionist piece of pop culture ala “Mad Men,” instead it feels like Disney basking in patriotic fervor. The warm cinematography and grandiose music score celebrate the romantic notion of early ‘60s America, where everyone rooted for the red, white and blue against the Russians. Of course, that’s not completely inaccurate. “The Right Stuff,” like the book and film, perfectly capture what happens when a country suddenly feels it is embarking on some grand project.
The cost of embarking on such endeavors is what makes the series unique as well. Along with the humorous and fun moments where Gilruth and Kraft bark at assistants, demanding better pilots’ lists or fretting over government funding, the show also takes on a more human, intimate feel with the astronauts. The cast look like rugged models for the ideal American hero, but the writing gives each one individualities and fascinating personal details. Gordon Cooper is worried that in this more conservative era, the fact that he is separated from wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford) will ruin his chances of being part of the project. Alan Shepard, sometimes portrayed as the icier disciplinarian in documentaries, is actually more of a rebellious type with a chip on his shoulder here. While John Glenn gets more of the typical, face on a post stamp treatment, he also deals with particular insecurities. The other astronauts are rowdy womanizers, indulging in the perks of being national icons, but Glenn feels older and more duty-bound. He’s a devout Christian who stays away from sinful temptations like booze. Glenn eventually draws curiosity for refusing to be a party animal with the rest of the cosmic bros. However, they all soon feel the pressure of essentially losing their privacy to fame. If someone gets into a brawl it makes headlines, if someone has a fight with their wife or runs off with a girlfriend, a snoop will be in the bushes waiting. Eventually the astronauts have to hire a publicist to shape their public image.
“The Right Stuff” opens as it should, by establishing a sense of camaraderie. One can only imagine what it was like to be part of such a group, tasked with not only doing a service to the nation, but embarking on a mission that could mean your instant doom if it goes wrong. The show doesn’t reach the level of psychological depths like films in the style of “First Man,” but it’s still an engaging and good time. The season will later touch on the role of women more deeply, and to its credit the early episodes do give the wives of the astronauts agency.
False patriotism ages terribly when it comes to shows and movies, but “The Right Stuff” feels sincere. We should be proud of the work put into the space program and when this kind of story is told well, it inspires us to wonder why we don’t do more with the resources at our disposal. Of course, someone will have to step forward and risk all the cameras and questions.
“The Right Stuff” premieres Oct. 9 with new episodes streaming every Friday on Disney+.