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‘The Right Stuff’ on Disney+ Turns the American Space Race Into a Soap Opera

A definitive 1980s film (and its iconic astronauts) becomes a schlocky, gimmick-y series no one asked for

One of the wonders of the Mercury Seven is that it’s a story you can tell lots of ways, depending on your perspective and temperament. Perhaps the tale of America’s original astronauts — seven fearless test pilots risking their lives to help our great nation win the space race — is an inspirational tale illustrating that the U.S. can accomplish anything it sets its mind to. Maybe it’s a study of masculinity, examining how a bunch of competitive men had to learn to work together for a cause greater than themselves. You could look at the Mercury Seven as an example of shrewd propaganda, the astronauts becoming marketable symbols of American exceptionalism. Or, you could simply get misty-eyed about the whole thing, seeing in these men’s daring all that’s exciting and awe-inspiring about exploring the cosmos, humanity’s final frontier.

If any of those takes interests you, I have excellent news: There is a movie that encompasses them all. Winning four Oscars, and nominated for Best Picture, 1983’s The Right Stuff was a grand, three-hour-plus odyssey about the Mercury Seven and, just as importantly, what they represented in their time as well as in the early years of the Reagan administration. It’s a big, bold, ambitious drama — stirring, moving but also funny — that took inspiration from reporter Tom Wolfe’s celebrated book, which tried to understand the kind of men who would do something so exceedingly reckless. The film may not be perfect, but it feels definitive, summing up an age of American adventure we might not ever see again.

So where does that leave The Right Stuff, a new National Geographic drama series that premieres on Disney+ on October 9th? After watching the five episodes made available to critics — out of a total of eight — I’ve deduced that this remake goes in the only direction left open to it. If you wanted the Mercury Seven saga told like an earnest soap opera — mildly binge-y, focusing on the principals’ personal melodramas — then you’re in for a treat. I’m just not convinced that approach does the story many favors. 

Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, this Right Stuff doesn’t have any remotely comparably big names in front of the camera, which makes sense since it allows the real people these actors are playing to be the true stars. Although there were seven astronauts in the Mercury program, the series focuses on two of them: cocky Navy pilot Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) and squeaky-clean Marine John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams). Their rivalry is the beating heart of the series, adding a human element to the perilous quest by a new American government agency, called NASA, that in the late 1950s began assembling a team of hotshot pilots who could travel into space. Glenn, a teetotaler and self-confessed square, quickly realizes that he has the wholesome charisma to be the face of the Mercury Seven to the press, helping to rally the public for this expensive, dangerous project. Shepard, a womanizer who keeps his serial infidelities from his wife and family, doesn’t have the same ease as Glenn around journalists, worried that that deficiency will mean he won’t get to be the first U.S. pilot to blast off. These two men couldn’t be more different, except in one crucial regard — their shared hunger to be written into the country’s history books.

In theory, the new Right Stuff explores some thematic terrain I’d find interesting. Showrunner Mark Lafferty (who worked on Halt and Catch Fire and Castle Rock) wants to get into the private issues that bedeviled these men, as well as explore their wives’ lives. (For instance, Trudy, played by Eloise Mumford, is married to Colin O’Donoghue’s Gordon Cooper, repressing her own flying ambitions to support her husband’s dreams.) It’s not just the time period that recalls Mad Men — the cast and crew have talked about how their series’ alpha-male characters bring to mind Don Draper and his crew — and, indeed, The Right Stuff can occasionally fit in a wee bit of commentary about how the early space program was a haven for entitled white men, who used their remote training as an excuse to booze it up and cheat on their wives. (The devoted and devoutly religious Glenn was the only one of the seven to abstain.) 

But rather than being a more balanced look at some deified American heroes — presenting them as flawed horndogs treated like gods by an adoring, naive public — The Right Stuff tends to flatten its characters into simplistically “complicated” types. You can guess how Shepard’s and Glenn’s individual storylines will shake out. Yes, Shepard is a dick-swinging stud, but secretly he’s terrified after he starts experiencing some hearing issues. Could it be a sign of something more serious? And can he keep it from NASA so that he’s not kicked out of the program?! Meanwhile, Glenn is a morally upstanding good guy, but his self-righteousness and spotless image alienate him from the rest of the Mercury Seven. But even this family man will be tempted when he’s away from home and lonely. Will he give into his urges?! Instead of fleshed-out people, we get tawdry twists.

The 1983 film, directed by Philip Kaufman, was very much of its time, in terms of Hollywood storytelling, because it was a widescreen epic that took on a big subject in a bold way. (The movie spanned about 15 years and heavily featured pre-Mercury trailblazer Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard, while the full first season of the Disney+ series skips ahead to the Mercury Seven and supposedly only encompasses about two years.) Kaufman’s film was part Western, part adventure tale — it was meant to be seen on the hugest screen possible. 

Similarly, this new Right Stuff fits our content age, which I don’t mean as a compliment. For example, Lafferty admirably strives for some gender balance, showing how the wives, particularly Nora Zehetner’s Annie Glenn, had as challenging a task on the homefront as their husbands did in the cockpit. It’s a very modern attempt to bring some welcome diversity to just another story about heroic white dudes, but thus far the female characters still mostly feel like narrative devices meant to add emotional shading to the men. 

The domestic life of the Mercury Seven

And, in a larger sense, the series engages in the storytelling gimmicks of the binge era, stringing us along with episode-ending cliffhangers or revelations that are expected to keep us hooked until the next installment. (The first two episodes will be available on Friday, with a new episode coming out each Friday until the season-ender on November 20th.) Problem is, the show flirts with the building blocks of good writing — plumbing the psychological depths of its characters, creating relatable conflicts between its two leads’ contrasting personalities — but does so in the driest ways imaginable, serving up lots of incidents and events without being particularly compelling. A whole lot of “stuff” happens in The Right Stuff, but I can’t say I ever entirely engaged with it. Like too many modern streaming series, this one just keeps… going, confident that you won’t stop watching because, well, you wanna see some sort of resolution, don’t you?

Does the show have anything to say about patriotism, the selling of America’s Cold War rivalry against the Soviets, the rigid masculinity of the 1950s or the thrill of space exploration? Sure, they’ve all been clumsily woven into the series’ bland fabric. But what captivated America about the Mercury Seven was the sheer audacity of the undertaking. That’s what Kaufman’s film understood, too: We would never see the likes of such stoic warriors again. Whether or not that was a good thing is up for debate, and certainly a modern, revisionist Right Stuff could dissect the racism, sexism and jingoism of its story’s time period and come up with something potentially rich. 

But Lafferty’s series takes no such risks. It’s a competently produced, rather basic retelling of a story that’s integral to our national character. But because it has no nerve or spirit, it cheapens those astronauts’ daring. No doubt these men (and their wives) were complicated individuals battling plenty of inner demons. But for all the seemingly juicy intrigue about alcoholism, affairs and dark secrets, this Right Stuff is surprisingly leaden. It’s got Glenn’s squareness with none of Shepard’s swagger.