Disney+ and Nat-Geo re-adapt the tale of the early days of the Space Race into a mature, grounded astronaut drama.
The latest streaming series concept du jour seems to be taking a beloved, classic film, translating it into an eight-to-ten hour miniseries with all the prestige drama gloss you can muster, and cranking up the color saturation until you’re liable to scream. It’s happened with Ratched, it’s about to happen with FX’s retelling of Black Narcissus, and now Disney+ and National Geographic have gotten in on the game with The Right Stuff, based on the Tom Wolfe book of the same name (previously adapted into an influential feature film in the ’80s by Philip Kaufman). Charting the struggles and foibles of the Mercury 7 — the first men picked to kickstart America’s space program during the Cold War rush to beat the Russians to space — Will Staples‘ take on the story flits between workplace procedural and historical drama with ease. In doing so, it shakes off some of its early-flight jitters to turn into something surprisingly involving.
At first glance, The Right Stuff feels like one of those prestige period dramas hastily greenlit in the early 2010s after the runaway critical success of Mad Men — swingin’ ’60s locales, crisp suits and high and tights, women in bouffant hairdos and cat’s-eye glasses, all accomplished with the modest budget of a mid-tier streaming network. But once you shake off the aching worry that this is going to be another Pan Am, The Right Stuff throws you effortlessly into its myriad period conflicts.
When we open the series, we already know which of the 7 will end up in the final stretch: buttoned-down square John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) and taciturn Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), who clearly have no love lost between them as they await their final decision. But then we cut to 1959, at the height of the Space Race: the Russians are constantly outflanking America in the Space Race. Facing the crib death of the fledging NASA due to budget cuts and lack of public interest, scientists Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) to find test pilots to train to become the first man in space. Along with Glenn and Shepard, the Mercury 7 consist of Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty), Wally Schirra (Mad Men alum Aaron Staton), Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), and Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue). They’re strong, clean-cut (white) men, surely the shining image of American exceptionalism the country thinks it needs to send us into the stars.
But as The Right Stuff is concerned less with the technical minutiae of sending men to space than it is the personal problems facing them on terra firma. More than their physical ability, getting picked to be the first into space requires personal and political maneuvers they could never learn in the cockpit. Shepard tries to make sure his separation from his wife Louise (Shannon Lucio) doesn’t torpedo his chances, while the 38-year-old Glenn makes frantic calls to John F. Kennedy to secure his spot and play dad to the younger, more reckless pilots in the program. Cooper, for his part, grapples with his own problems with substance abuse and infidelity. The others get short shrift in the five episodes screened for critics, especially Staton and Lafferty, but they fill in essential atmosphere to convey the caliber of men hand-picked for this most precarious of programs.
Given the nature of the story, The Right Stuff is very white, and it’s very male –I counted on one finger the number of Black people with speaking lines. And the show isn’t really that concerned with interrogating that particular vision of America, apart from the hidden cracks in the firmament of the nuclear-family image that virtually none of our clean-cut astronauts seem capable of maintaining. The women of the story are relegated to the sidelines, but at least knowingly so; we follow Cooper’s wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford) as she begrudgingly navigates Gordo’s affairs, and in episode five crosses paths with famed aspiring astronaut Jerrie Cobb (Mamie Gummer), who recruits her to train as well. We know that history won’t let any of them touch the glory their men strive for, but The Right Stuff at least feels honest about that tragic facet of ’50s American patriarchy.
Where Staples’ show really cooks is in the dynamic between the 7, in all their testosterone-fueled competition. By definition, they’re all practically the same person (inattentive viewers might need a guide to help differentiate each of their chiseled jaws), which leads to no small amount of dick-swinging over who deserves the top spot. Many of Adams and McDorman’s best exchanges drip with barely-concealed contempt for the other: the self-righteous do-gooder clashing against the prototypical adrenaline junkie. Both represent competing visions of masculinity that help elevate their characters above the rest, and the performers are capable leads.
The Right Stuff is concerned less with the technical minutiae of sending men to space than it is the personal problems facing them on terra firma.
Even before they suit up for takeoff, the Mercury 7 are hailed as heroes and celebrities, complete with TIME journalist Loudon Wainright, Jr. (Josh Cooke) doing in-depth profiles on them. Here, The Right Stuff almost feels like Ballers, mining drama from the precarious cocktail of youthful arrogance and a boatload of corporate-sponsored attention. Another intriguing subplot explores Nazi scientist Wehrner von Braun’s (Sache Seberg) contributions to the space program, and how his presence clashes with the American scientists. By all accounts, America’s side of the Space Race inevitably reflects the moral compromises, fractured masculinity, and wounded ego of the culture in which it’s set, and it’s on these moments that The Right Stuff smartly focuses.
As streaming shows go, it doesn’t knock your socks off — like the show’s portrayal of Glenn, The Right Stuff is competent, reliable, and relatively unremarkable. But what it sets out to do, it does with admirable thoughtfulness, especially within the confines of a modestly-budgeted streaming show with few big names on its cast list. When we grew up, we all wanted to be astronauts; The Right Stuff shows us the weight and pressure that comes with that symbolic status, which can shake even the most daredevil test pilot.
The Right Stuff blasts off onto Disney+ on October 9th.