The Right Stuff on Disney Plus review: Mad Men meets First Man
Meet the Mercury 7, the real-life playboy flyboys bedhopping their way into space in Nat Geo's new drama.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Ah, the '60s: When men were men, women were just sort of around somewhere, and rockets blasted off for the stars. Fans of sharp suits and space travel can get a jolt of space race history and midcentury Americana in The Right Stuff, a new television drama streaming on
telling the story of America's first astronauts.
Produced by National Geographic, the new series is based on the 1979 nonfiction bestseller by Tom Wolfe that laid bare the lives and loves of the Mercury 7, the all-American test pilots who raced the Russians into space. The Right Stuff release date is Friday, Oct. 9 on Disney Plus, beginning with the first two episodes and followed by a new installment every week.
The show opens in the early hours of May 5, 1961. Unable to sleep, two square-jawed flyboys pound the track in the predawn darkness -- until one zooms past the other. That's these guys in a nutshell: No matter what they're doing, they want to go faster. Or more precisely, they want to be fastest.
Tensions between the two are revealed over their steak breakfast, tensions they must put aside as the historic day dawns: a gleaming white rocket thrusts into a cloudless Florida sky ready to put the first American into space. But even if the mission is a success, they're still behind the Russians...
Those are the stakes established. We then cut back to 1959, when we're introduced to America's elite military test pilots, a cocky cadre of flyboys and playboys dedicated to "drinking, flying and screwing." If there's one thing they like more than flying too fast and cheating on their wives, it's being the best of the best, so they all leap at the chance to try out for something called NASA.
Wolfe's book about the Project Mercury astronauts was previously filmed as an epic 1983 film directed by Philip Kaufman, an essential watch for anyone interested in extraordinary true stories. But that isn't the only reason Nat Geo's new TV version feels familiar, even though the credits specifically say it's based on the 1983 movie's screenplay as well as on the book. It feels familiar because this is a period of history that's been mined many times.
You know the drill: slim ties, and vintage tunes on the jukebox. Short sleeves and cigarettes in Mission Control. Immaculately coiffured wives opening the door of their suburban homes to flashbulbs popping on their immaculately coiffured lawns. These are scenes you've seen before in movies and TV shows from Apollo 13 to First Man to Hidden Figures to The Astronaut Wives Club -- it's such well-worn territory we've even progressed into alternate versions of the story in
Apple TV Plus
show For All Mankind. So the biggest question hanging over this new version of The Right Stuff is whether it presents enough new stuff.
2018's First Man gave a fresh perspective on the well-known story of the first moon landing by locking us inside Neil Armstrong's cockpit, giving us a frequently terrifying first-person view of the bone-shaking, nerve-shredding experience of escaping Earth. The Right Stuff is less interested in the mechanics of space flight (in the first few episodes at least) and focuses instead on the astronauts themselves. Given the length of a TV show season we spend more time with the posse of pilots developing into a space age rat pack, their legendary test pilot swagger tested by newfound fame and unexpected political pressure. It's more like Mad Men than First Man, as these skilled but deeply flawed characters, these outmoded men, are thrust into a changing age.
Because even if it isn't new to anyone who knows their history, The Right Stuff is still an inherently dramatic story. They're the first astronauts, for Pete's sake.
Within the group, the main source of tension comes from the clash between straitlaced John Glenn and gleeful philanderer Alan Shepard. Glenn is portrayed as upright yet ruthlessly ambitious, unafraid to court the limelight and happy to do so because his life and family are so wholesome. Shepard, meanwhile, chafes against fame because his messy personal life is the exact opposite. In between is Gordon Cooper, shaken by a colleague's death and forced to keep the collapse of his marriage a secret from the world. These men form a microcosm of American society, family and masculinity under strain, with the added stakes that at any time any one of them could become a legend or be blown to smithereens.
Suits star Patrick J. Adams gets a good deal of screen time as Glenn, although Jake McDorman -- star of the Limitless TV show -- steals the show as the salacious Shepard. It's tough to rate the other proto-astronauts largely because they all look exactly the same, although Michael Trotter gets a lot of mileage out of the close-mouthed Gus Grissom. In the 1983 film, these main roles were played by Ed Harris as Glenn, Scott Glenn (no relation) as Shepard, Dennis Quaid as Cooper, and Fred Ward as Grissom -- big shoes to fill.
Among the seven you may recognize Mad Men star Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra. It's a dangerous game, however, to try to borrow some of Mad Men's shine, because pretty much any other TV show suffers by comparison. The Right Stuff just isn't as subtle or sophisticated or as scathingly analytical of the era as Mad Men was. And despite its title, Mad Men triumphed when when it wasn't focused on the men, as the women characters were every bit as interesting and flawed as their male counterparts. The Right Stuff spends little time with the women of its story -- and while the guys all look the same, so too do the gals.
Then again, it is perfect for anyone who enjoyed the look but thought Mad Men was too slow. The Right Stuff shoots for the stars with the cars, the clothes and the music -- all the right '60s stuff for anyone who loves a touch of space age glamour on their TV.
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