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Schultz reviews: 'The Right Stuff'

Schultz reviews: 'The Right Stuff'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“The Right Stuff”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Television and National Geographic Studios, 8 Episodes, Not Rated, Streaming now on Disney+:

During the late 1950s, when the US Government first got into the business of launching men into space and the program was still in the planning stages, the candidates to inhabit the rudimentary experimental spacecraft included trapeze artists, daredevils, and circus acrobats.  Under different circumstances, the first man on the moon might’ve been Evel Knievel instead of Neil Armstrong.

But then-President Eisenhower, who before politics had risen through the ranks of the US Army to become the most powerful general of World War II, decided by himself that the first US astronauts should be chosen from the anonymous fraternity of military test pilots--men whose primary job was to place their lives on the line every day flying high-performance experimental aircraft.  And just like that, the most desirable and sought-after assignment in the US military became working for NASA and traveling into outer space.

That era is the subject of “The Right Stuff,” the new miniseries from Warner Bros. Studios and National Geographic which tells the story of the space program and the first men to climb atop the rockets to allow themselves to be launched beyond the earth’s atmosphere.  With the first seven episodes now streaming on Disney+ and an eighth on the launching pad, “The Right Stuff” is planned as a continuing series depicting the entire history of the US space program, up to the present.  A new episode will premiere every Friday, according to the Disney+ schedule.

Adapted from author Tom Wolfe’s 1979 non-fiction book of the same name, the first batch of episodes depict the genesis of Project Mercury, the ambitious plan implemented by NASA during the early 1960s to send men into space and achieve earth orbit in preparation for an eventual mission to the moon.  The title phrase refers to the quality Hemingway described as “grace under pressure”--an ability to think clearly beyond fear or alarm as a means of survival...even when, say, piloting a malfunctioning jet rocketing at speeds in excess of 500 mph straight toward the ground.

The Right Stuff is a rare and elusive ability, and of the hundreds of military-trained applicants for the position of NASA astronaut--the term “astronaut” means ”star voyager”--precisely seven were judged to possess the correct blend of raw courage and cool competence required of the mission.  Those who had the ability knew it, chrished it, and even quietly defined themselves by it--a supreme belief of their own proficiency and invulnerability under fire, even in the face of almost certain death.

The seven men chosen to be Mercury astronauts were intensely private individuals, as flawed as anyone and accustomed to military anonymity, but suddenly thrust unprepared into the intense media scrutiny of a highly visible occupation and declared national heroes before they’d ever actually done anything heroic.  Part of the genius of Wolfe’s book was that it noted the dichotomy between the astronauts’ carefully manufactured public images and private realities and kept moving, never allowing their individual foibles and weaknesses diminish their unquestionable patriotism or astonishing achievements.

The filmmakers behind “The Right Stuff” miniseries unfortunately omit two of the essential components central to author Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book.  Missing is the ribald and frequently raunchy sense of humor which naturally surrounded an endeavor informed by improvisation, ingenuity, ambition, rivalry, and adroit public relations.  Only one of the first astronauts truly lived up to the image carefully concocted by NASA and the news media (including National Geographic):  The straight-as-an-arrow US Marine Corp pilot John Glenn.  

The miniseries also ignores Chuck Yeager, the US Army test pilot described in Wolfe’s matchless prose as “the boy from the back country with only a high school education, no credentials, no cachet or polish of any sort, who took off the feed store overalls and put on a uniform and climbed into an airplane and lit up the skies over Europe.”  An American legend every bit as oversized as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, Yeager’s spirit inhabits every word of Wolfe’s book, and to this day inspires both the space program and the airline industry. 

In this retelling, “The Right Stuff” gets the ambition and the rivalry right, but forgets the humor that leavened the gravity of Wolfe’s book, demystified the seven original astronauts and rendered them in human colors.  The men became all the more heroic because of their humanity--their flaws and shortcomings.  

In the miniseries version the irreverence is present, but it seems forced and deliberate.  Every word spoken seems intended to be recorded for posterity instead of overheard spontaneously behind the scenes and off-the-record.  The viewer gets the facts, but little of the humanity.  Produced by National Geographic, the series is as colorful and accurate as the magazine...but also as stolid, serious, and unsmiling.  Based on the first seven episodes, the series achieves liftoff, but never soars among the stars.

As individuals, the Mercury astronauts frequently disagreed among themselves--they were professional rivals in their individual quests to be the first, to be the best.  The seven weren’t best friends or even particularly close, and they disagreed--sometimes forcefully.  Still, in their elite fraternity each of the men possessed a unique ability to resolve personal differences and form an impenetrably united front, unshakable in their mutual resolve.  In this version of the story, the relationship between Shepard and Glenn is hostile, often threatening to explode into violence.  It’s an interesting dramatic device, but it’s not the truth.

Among the performers, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard is so obsessed and driven that he seems perpetually ready to explode.  Colin O’Donoghue as Gordon Cooper appears so riddled with anxiety and self-doubt that he constantly appears to be on the verge of tears.  Micah Stock and Michael Trotter work in tandem as Deke Slayton and Gus Grissom, so painfully taciturn that they seem intellectually impaired.  Nora Zehetner as Annie Glenn is everything you’d hope for in an astronaut’s wife, but not as hampered by a speech impairment as in real life.

Only Canadian actor Patrick J. Adams as the straight arrow John Glenn strikes nearly the right balance, although even he is given a subversive and vaguely distracted Steve McQueen-like vibe which seems at odds with the astronaut’s rosy-cheeked Mom and Apple Pie image.  It’s important to note that a person doesn’t become a US Marine Corps colonel by being a nice guy, or placid in any way.  Still, Adams’ Glenn seems to nurse a secret agenda, a personal mission that motivates him more than his self-evident sense of family and patriotism.

“The Right Stuff” was previously adapted by writer/director Philip Kaufman into a critically acclaimed 1983 picture.  Despite flawless production and full-blooded characterizations from an ensemble cast filled with a who’s who of 1980s motion picture talent (including Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Pamela Reed, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Harris, and actor/playwright Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager) Kaufman’s 192-minute picture notoriously failed to blast off into the box office stratosphere, even after a star-studded gala world premiere at Washington’s Kennedy Center and media reception at the National Air and Space Museum.

Heavily touted as the real story behind the US space program, many audiences seemed to avoid the 1983 picture, fearing either a documentary or a political manifesto:  John Glenn was by then a US Senator running for the Presidency, a career development entirely in line with his depiction in both Wolfe’s book and Kaufman’s picture.  Newsweek magazine in devoting that week’s cover to a photo of actor Ed Harris as John Glenn asked the question, “Can a Movie Help Make a President?”  And even newsman Walter Cronkite, who’d helped to invent the astronauts’ mythos during the 1960s, criticized the film for its irreverent accuracy.

The new “The Right Stuff” miniseries is receiving a tepid response from the critics, including an approval rating of just 53% from the Rotten Tomatoes website against a weighted average score of 61% from Metacritic (in comparison, the 1983 picture received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96%).  The entertainment newspaper Variety notes the miniseries “never met a space story cliche it didn’t embrace with open arms,” while Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times writes the miniseries “plays like ‘Mad Men: The Flyboys Edition.’”  

With source material as fascinating as “The Right Stuff,” it’s tough to stray too far off the mark.  Those fortunate enough to have viewed both motion picture adaptations of Tom Wolfe’s incisive, accurate, and highly literate 1979 book will naturally have a preference between the two dramatized versions.  Certainly each has its strong points, and both in their own way are absorbing and well worth watching.

But for the very best version of the story of the Mercury program and the first US astronauts, find a copy of Wolfe’s 1979 book and read it again or for the first time.  You won’t regret it.

“The Right Stuff” is not rated, but is PG in nature for adult nature, sexuality, some language, and scenes depicting drinking and smoking.

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