Tom Wolfe began his book about the early days of the U.S. manned space program “The Right Stuff” with an observation and an explanation.
At the time he was reporting it, you could get on a jetliner from most any American airline and the comforting, laid-back drawl from the cockpit — “This’s your captain speakin’.” — always seemed to have a touch of West Virginia about it.
Every pilot making a living flying was emulating, in Wolfe’s ears, Chuck Yeager, the American test pilot who broke the sound barrier. Yeager, played by Sam Shepard in the 1983 film adaptation of the book, was the embodiment of its title — laconic, never-panicking, a working class professional and nobody’s idea of a showboat or publicity hound. He was an American archetype, and the fact that he wasn’t one of those chosen to be America’s first astronauts was both an injustice and of less consequence than you’d think.
Because he was the role model for every member of the Mercury Seven, test pilots chosen to be “Spam in a can” for America’s impulsively conceived, desperately undertaken space program. These were macho types disinclined to lose their cool, “Maintaining an even strain” under the most terrifying work conditions of their day, just like their idol, Yeager.
Chuck Yeager is nowhere to be found in the new take on “The Right Stuff” launching on Disney+ Oct. 8. Remaking the greatest American screen epic of the ’80s meant that the producers would have to shift the focus, concentrate on the hell-raising astronauts and their families. Fair enough.
The jaunty swagger of Philip Kaufman’s film masterpiece, the droll gee whizzery of Tom Wolfe’s book? Gone.
Creator Mark Lafferty (“Halt and Catch Fire”) and his production team went so far out of their way to avoid Kaufman’s brilliant take on Wolfe’s brilliant book, that they didn’t make “The Right Stuff” at all. This runs closer to “The Astronaut Wive’s Club,” a 2015 series focused on the women behind the men — putting up with the dangers, the reckless risks, the womanizing and having to give up their own ambitions to make those men and those flights a success. Only it’s not that, either.
This is a blandly-cast, boringly-acted, dully-written, flatly-directed and instantly-forgotten bore.
The focus here, at least in the earliest episodes provided by Disney, is on the Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman of TV’s “Murphy Brown” revival) and John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams of “Suits” and “Sneaky Pete”) rivalry to be “The First American in Space.”
McDorman gives Shepard a competitive intensity and wandering eye smirk, and the screenwriters put a lot of their energy into showing the First Man to Golf on the Moon’s constant womanizing, putting an under-funded program in jeopardy every time he chose to step out.
This Shepard’s passion for “privacy” has a dark undercurrent, one the NASA shrink ID’s early on. “You aren’t honest with yourself. And that will catch up with you eventually.”
Adams’ Glenn is much more familiar to the national memory — always smiling, always politic, a Marine who matched Shepard’s competitive edge and topped it with a press and TV friendly ear for the quote — “Quite a moment for our country, and for the whole human race.” His desire, backed by his wife Annie (Nora Zehetner), a shy but steel-willed stutterer, is to seize “my chance to be the first at something memorable.”
We get quick sketches of the oddball form of training and conditioning used to winnow the potential candidates into a seven-man rotation, the one thing this “Right Stuff” allows itself to repeat from the classic film.
The film made movie stars out of Dennis Quaid, Scott Glen, Ed Harris and Fred Ward. I don’t see that happening here.
The leads don’t have much color to them, and truthfully only Michael Trotter and Micah Stock, as Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton, look anything like their real astronaut characters. Eloise Mumford, as airplane-racer turned “astronaut wife” and mom Trudy Cooper, married to Gordo Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) is the only spouse to register.
The comic relief — for those to remember the book and the film — is limited to Patrick Fischler as the long suffering administrator Bob Gilruth. There’s precious little of it, in any event.
If you’re the type to give a series a few episodes to see if it’s worth your trouble — don’t hold your breath waiting for anything spectacular, gripping or fun. When Gilruth mutters “Another one of our rockets exploded,” instead of the filmmakers SHOWING us that, you’ve got your answer.
This “Right Stuff” is pretty much all wrong.
Cast: Jake McDorman, Shannon Lucio, Patrick J. Adams, Eloise Mumford, Patrick Fischler, Colin O’Donoghue, Nora Zehetner, James Lafferty, Michael Trotter, Aaron Staton, Micah Stock and Mamie Gummer.
Credits: Created by Mark Lafferty, based on the book by Tom Wolfe and the 1983 film by Philip Kaufman. A Disney+ release, a National Geographic production.
Running time: Eight episodes @45-50 minutes each.