The story of the American space program of the 1960s and 1970s is one of the most well-told stories in recent history. This new adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff joins 1983s film adaptation, HBO’s 1998 mini-series From The Earth to the Moon, and 2016’s Hidden Figures, and that’s just if we are talking about the Mercury program.
The ground is well-trodden, but it’s a story we keep coming back to because it’s a story of achievement and a time when the country banded together behind a common cause for the public good. Sure, that goal was beating the Soviets, but the implications of the space program are so far-reaching that maybe that doesn’t even matter. Because the ground is so well-trodden though, each return to it must bring something new whether it’s the visual jazz of First Man or the behind the scenes story of Hidden Figures, something new or extra needs to be brought each time.
Herein lies the issue with this new version of The Right Stuff. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
You already know the story of the Mercury 7. Seven men selected to be the first American astronauts –Alan Shepard, John Glen, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Shirra, and Deke Slayton– were put through rigorous training and made into the faces of American exceptionalism.
What, then, does this new version of their story bring that previous versions did not? The answer, unfortunately, is nothing, which is a shame because the story is one of heroes and their public behaviour and their personal lives, their individual triumphs and their petty disagreements. If anything, this version doesn’t go as far as the 1983 version in that it leaves Chuck Yeager out entirely.
There’s nothing wrong with it either, though. Of the five episodes that Disney made available to me to watch, each of them is well-acted and competently directed. The production value is great, with exquisite period detail and cinematography.
There are three main characters in the story, Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), John Glen (Patrick J. Adams), and Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue). Together they form a sort of spectrum, with the perfect stereotype philandering flyboy on one end in Shepard, the tea-totalling too good for his own good Glen on the other, and Cooper stuck in the middle struggling to figure out which one he is more akin to. Each of the actors is well suited to their roles, but each of them is given very little to work with.
If you don’t already know this story, then there is probably something here for you. If you’re a fan of the 60s, then there is probably something here for you. If not, there’s not a lot here for you that you haven’t already seen before.