More Like ‘The Wrong Stuff’
The new Disney+ series about the early days of the U.S. space program didn’t ignite my thrusters
The first season of Disney+’s big-budget small screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 nonfiction book about the space race The Right Stuff fails to launch. That is my opinion as a grown man. The lavish drama doesn’t lack ambition it just doesn’t live up to either the source material.
There is plenty of action but it’s also… stuffy? I watched the first three of eight episodes and almost immediately wanted to watch the original 1983 feature film, which is a very serious, very manly movie about fire and speed and fearless hotshots.
In the fourth grade, I received two responses from two letters I wrote, one was from Marvel Comics politely rejecting a hand-written comic book idea about Spider-Man and the other a letter explaining what it was like to circle the Earth three times in a small spacecraft.
At that age, I was obsessed with make-believe superheroes and astronauts.
I did not know what a form letter was. It didn’t occur to me that hundreds or thousands of children wrote letters and then received pre-written letters back, signed by a primitive robot with a pen. I just assumed Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and Senator John Glenn had sat down at their typewriters and patiently pecked out a letter to me, John DeVore.
The Marvel rejection letter made me feel like a real writer with excellent penmanship. But Senator Glenn’s detailed missive of every minute of his legendary ride skyward became a sacred artifact, a sheaf of papers that yellowed over the years. I still have a few pages, in a file in a box under the bed in my childhood bedroom in Texas.
The Disney+ series wants to appeal to little humans. It’s not a particularly complex dramatization. Jets go vroom! Rockets go whoosh! Patriotic jaws clench! The story of America’s early space program is a story that should be told to young people. I bet a few would pay attention.
A mild warning if you have little ones: there are scenes of substance abuse and white cisgender men swinging their figurative genitals.
But I’d skip it if you’re looking for a gritty historical retelling of pivotal mid-century events. Disney+’s The Right Stuff is both portentous and bland. Basic, like buttered egg noodles. It’s a bit like a historical wax museum come to life — it transports us back in time to a mission control set populated by people in costumes. There are characters who smoke like chimneys because everyone smoked like chimneys in the ’60s but the actors puffing on butts look like they’re holding a cigarette for the first time.
I’ve read a few reviews that call it “Mad Men In Space,” but Mad Men was a subversive rewrite of a heavily mythologized era. This new The Right Stuff is respectful to a fault.
In fact, this is something the series and I have in common: I love NASA, especially the NASA of the ‘60s. It’s the closest I’m ever going to get to Star Trek’s Starfleet. There are few government agencies that I think are worth the tax dollars and the jocks and nerds at NASA deserve the funding. This is a country founded by explorers and it surprises me how we’ve forgotten that.
The U.S. space program is one of history’s great true-life adventure stories: at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union waged a battle in the stars using science and courage as weapons. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is a masterpiece about the hard-drinking, tough-talking, test-pilots who rode rockets into history.
The book is a thrilling tale about toxic men at their very best, especially supersonic daredevil flyboy Chuck Yeager, a hero to multiple generations of pilots. In The Right Stuff, the astronauts of NASA’s Project Mercury are very flawed, very human heroes.
Tom Wolfe wrote a mash note to these testosterone-soaked Joes who all volunteered to be living warheads in missiles used in a conflict where no one was shooting at each other. You can sense Wolfe wanted to be them — but settled for immortalizing their lunatic bravery instead.
The 1983 movie stars a dream team of grizzled character actors including Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Remo Williams himself, Fred Ward, and Ed Harris as John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. The Right Stuff is a real slog at three-hours but it gets under the fingernails. I had to watch it as a teen to appreciate it though. It’s a grounded, workmanlike epic that features a legendary Academy-Award winning performance by Sam Shepard and I recommend it.
I want to live in a country where any kid can dream of being an astronaut. I truly believe they’re actually worth looking up to — their drive, discipline, and commitment to science are all admirable qualities. If Disney+’s The Right Stuff inspires one child to look toward the stars, then the show is worth it. I just thought the series had the *slowly puts on sunglasses* wrong stuff.