The space race of the mid-20th century has proven to be very fertile ground for TV creators over the years. Looking for a reverent take? Tom Hanks has you covered with his HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. What was it like for the women married to the great men? ABC portrayed them a few years ago in the limited series Astronaut Wives Club. AppleTV+ launched last fall with For All Mankind, a counter-historical series that imagines how events might have proceeded differently if the Soviets had been the first to land on the moon. The themes also run through such disparate stories as Netflix's speculative Away, starring Hilary Swank as one of the first astronauts to travel to Mars; and even "Deep Space Homer," the 1994 episode of The Simpsons in which NASA attempts to reignite public interest by drafting an ordinary slob to travel into space. Arguably however, there is no more foundational text for this subject than The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's 1979 nonfiction book (later adapted into a film) about Project Mercury, America's first human spaceflight. Disney+ is now dramatizing those events for a new generation with an eight-episode miniseries.
You likely already know the story, which is practically coded into American DNA: toward the end of Dwight D. Eisenhower's second presidential term, it's starting to look like the Soviet Union could "conquer" space before the U.S. has barely stuck a toe in — and for a nation enjoying its status as a global superpower, this will not do. Eisenhower commits resources to NASA; Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) go on a nationwide search for the best pilots to enter an astronaut training program. (Kraft was the first Lead Flight Director at NASA, and was succeeded in the position by Gene Kranz... whom Ladin happens to play in For All Mankind.) After assembling 108 hot shots for a pre-screen at Langley, only two decide not to proceed, forcing Kraft and Gilruth to cut the list down to 32 candidates. After submitting to tests of their skills, bodies, and minds — both their acuity and their mental health — those 32 are winnowed down to the men who will become known as the Mercury Seven.
Depending on your age and taste, the 1983 film adaptation is a great place to see a bunch of today's silver foxes before they had so many miles on them — guys like Fred Ward, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, and Dennis Quaid. But like last year's Catch-22 miniseries, this adaptation gives producers a chance to put a whole new crop of himbos in tight t-shirts and boxers for our prurient enjoyment. Michael Trotter (who plays Gus Grissom) comes to us most recently from roles in Underground and Inhumans. Micah Stock (Deke Slayton) played Doug in Netflix's Bonding, but may have been more widely seen as Brittany's training buddy Seth in last year's feature film Brittany Runs A Marathon. James Lafferty (Scott Carpenter) also appeared in Underground, but is better known for his nine years playing Nathan Scott on One Tree Hill. (The Mark Lafferty who created it — and whose previous credits include Manhattan, Castle Rock, and the Einstein season of Genius — is apparently no relation.) You definitely know Aaron Staton (Wally Schirra) from his many seasons as Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men, though he more recently popped up in the aforementioned Castle Rock, and in a pivotal role in Netflix's Unbelievable. Colin O'Donoghue will be recognizable to Disney fans as Captain Killian "Hook" Jones from Once Upon a Time. Patrick J. Adams spent some seven years romancing Meghan Markle on Suits before sending her off to get married overseas; now he's playing John Glenn. And while Jake McDorman has done a lot — headlining the TV version of Limitless; playing Murphy Brown's once-scandalous baby as an adult in 2018's ill-fated revival; a memorable turn as Nelson Gardner/Captain Metropolis on Watchmen — to me he'll always be "Jedge" (or, if you're not Nadja, Jeff) of What We Do In The Shadows. Here, he's Alan Shepard.
To those who picture Alan Shepard as Scott Glenn, who played him in The Right Stuff, McDorman is going to be a shock; whereas even a youthful Scott Glenn was not entirely dissimilar to a small piece of beef jerky, McDorman is a six-foot slab of beefcake, and apparently prepared diligently for his many shirtless scenes in this project. Even before Al and John meet in Langley, it's clear they're going to be antagonists: Al disdains John for seeking the spotlight (and for being so dull once he's in it), while John judges Al for his drinking and philandering. Having gotten to know Adams through his Suits character, I almost feel like their roles should have been flipped — Mike was so roguish, and Nelson Gardner at least projected probity — but Al's smarminess and privilege do evoke Evan Chambers, McDorman's breakout role in Greek. According to Google, Adams is also six feet tall, but either the production is using Lord of the Rings-style forced perspective to make Al look like he's towering over John, or Adams is just bringing short king energy to the role (which could be a tribute to Ed Harris, who originated the role in the movie). Physical dimensions aside, in these two characters' conflict we see the crisis of midcentury American masculinity in microcosm. Will taciturn entitlement win the future, or a blend of personal rectitude and media savvy?
The miniseries, which comes to Disney+ under the National Geographic banner, is well made, with the expected attention given to period detail; other than shots that include actual spacecraft, it looks impressively expensive. This is a bonanza for lovers of the training montage trope, by means of which we're given to understand that by most professional measures, the Mercury men are in a seven-way tie (although one is suffering more than the others in one of the tests we see him undergo, and is cravenly hiding it from those evaluating him, as well as his fellow trainee-astronauts). There are fights about science, fights about engineering, fights about Congressional appropriations, and fights that erupt out of flyboys' inflated egos.
Where this version of the story seems to spend more time than the movie is in the PR realm. Our general understanding of mythmaking and celebrity have changed since both the book and the movie, and the miniseries reflects that, delving into the media ecosystem elements at a more granular level for an audience of viewers who have become their own personal brand managers on social media. A scene in which a Washington Post reporter just wanders into the Coopers' new house while they're unpacking and starts casually interviewing their daughters is somehow disturbing and quaint at the same time: obviously it's invasive, but if the Mercury project were being launched in our day, Gordon's wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford) would probably be expected to have her own Instagram with photos of the kids at home. By the same token, it seems wild that an agent who approaches John works out an exclusive arrangement between the Mercury Seven and Life management that will pay each family $25,000 a year to create what we now call curated content over which the subjects will have final editorial control, until you remember that celebrities do this now; they just post #ads on their feeds, or they agree to profiles only if the magazine's editors will allow them to be interviewed by friends who won't ask any questions they don't want to answer.
Anyway: the reason mythmaking is required at all is to drum up popular support for this massively expensive government project. The fact that this Right Stuff exists at the nexus of these two concepts at this moment in our timeline is darkly hilarious. First, there's the high moral standards all the Mercury Seven hopefuls have to meet (or, at the very least, appear to meet) in order to even be considered for the program. The Coopers have been separated for some time when Gordo approaches Trudy and asks her, as a favor, to reunite with him in a sham marriage to serve his possible career as an astronaut; it's also implied that Al's wife Louise (Shannon Lucio) is aware of Al's infidelity but has chosen to ignore it. A few episodes in, one astronaut's indiscretion in Tijuana is captured by a San Diego newspaper reporter who intends to run with the story, until one of his brethren appeals directly to his publisher to spike it for the sake of the country: "This is about whether the future belongs to people who believe in what we believe in." There's... a government enterprise in which that hangs in the balance? And, also: the future could be jeopardized (in this rather jingoistic framing, but: pretend I accept it) by one dude getting papped with a sex worker? Remember when scandals had stakes? Traveling back to an era in which this group of pilots and their wives are constantly policing not just their own behavior but each other's out of a terror of bad press, as absurdly parochial as it may be, is almost the most nostalgic element of this whole series.
What is actually the most nostalgic element is The Right Stuff's portrayal of a mostly functional government agency, operating with what seems (eventually) to be the general support of the public, to realize a national project with the potential to change the course of human events. Leaving aside whether this was the best use of that kind of money at the time: pulling off anything even one-thousandth as ambitious in this country today is literally impossible to imagine. For some, The Right Stuff may function as competence porn; for others, our devolution as a nation in just two generations may be extremely depressing.
In the five episodes provided for critics, The Right Stuff makes a lot of expected choices and covers a lot of expected ground; unlike Astronaut Wives Club or Hidden Figures, this is not a NASA story that ever takes its eye off the white men at the center of its story for very long, which is another attribute that makes it feel like it's coming to us at the wrong time. On the other hand, it is arriving just as Disney+ launches Disney Plus Party, a feature that lets you throw a watch party with loved ones in other locations; if you're not quarantining with him, your dad would probably love to make a weekly date to watch this with you. And hey, maybe fifty years from now we'll all be watching a new Disney+ miniseries, starring a bunch of hunks who haven't even been born yet, all about the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. Will it be set in this country? I guess we'll find out soon how much of the right stuff we have left.
The Right Stuff premieres on Disney+ October 9th.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.