Previous to this show, the saga once became synonymous with Oscar wins thanks to Philip Kaufman's 1983 film starring Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, and many other talented stars. However, the movie tipped over the three-hour mark, making it clear this was a complex and lofty story to tell. One that might even be better suited as, say, an ongoing series.
The Right Stuff on Disney+, from National Geographic and Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way, is a mostly enjoyable look back at a time when the "American way of life" was in danger of being lost if our country couldn't beat the Russians into space. Context-wise, when looking at current events, it all feels a bit trite by comparison, especially considering how concerned these characters are that scandals, or any blemishes in the public eye, could quickly sink the entire program. Overall, it's best to focus on the characters here, even if most of them tend to blend effortlessly into the background.The Right Stuff, as a series, reshapes and remolds elements of Wolfe's book as well as Kaufman's movie. It expands on the story in certain parts while also nixing entire arcs and even characters altogether. The episodic structure now gives the story more room to breathe and explore, though in these first two episodes it doesn’t produce anything necessarily exciting or engaging. It’s an example of more just being more. At its heart here, after the first two chapters, The Right Stuff is the tale of three men (and four who don't really resonate) who long to be a part of history despite the chinks in their respective armor.
Patrick J. Adams' (Suits) famed flyboy John Glenn is already seen as "over the hill" but his celebrity status makes him the most media-savvy of the bunch. Jake McDorman's (Shameless) antsy, arrogant ace Alan Shepard is a jealous, competitive philanderer who doesn't want his wife to find out about his many affairs. And Colin O'Donoghue's (Once Upon a Time) Gordo Cooper is so terrified that people will find out he's separated from his wife that he convinces her to move back home and pretend to be a happy family. As the main trio, they all play well off each other, though it’s the respectful rivalry between Glenn and Shepard that mostly takes center stage. Their gentlemanly antagonism is the most interesting part of the series, but it’s not enough to remove the other plodding elements. Namely, all the other characters.
The first episode, “Sierra Hotel,” involves Project Mercury’s intense selection process, thinning a herd of over 100 candidates down to the nitty-gritty seven, while the second installment shines a spotlight on how huge these newly-minted "astronauts" became (this was when the term/title was invented) on a national level. Thrust into a media circus, the Mercury Seven, most of whom simply enjoyed the solitary thrill of flying a plane at super-high speeds, became an overnight sensation. And while these two chapters nicely focus on different themes stemming from separate events, they can’t overcome the generic tone and low-level stakes created by rooms filled with chest-puffing men trying to not be forgotten by history.The Right Stuff is noble and obvious in its efforts to take us back to a shining moment of historic achievement, but the end result, thus far, is kind of middling. It's not bad, mind you, just aggressively decent. Maybe I’m just not used to Disney sheen in an episodic format. I’m certainly okay with it as a movie, when the studio puts out inspirational sports films and such, but as a series there's an edge lacking. That doesn't mean things need to get oppressively dark or gritty, but the output here feels very basic and bereft at times. Much of it has to do with how disposable all the astronauts who aren’t Glenn, Shepard, and Cooper feel. Mad Men’s Aaron Staton, One Tree Hill’s James Lafferty, Michael Trotter, and Micah Stock play the other four astronauts whose stories get short-sheeted.
Perhaps the tale itself isn't as easily engaging as it once was, even as groundbreaking science and/or a monumental endeavor. Regardless, The Right Stuff makes no bones about how most of its characters all feel cut from the same strong-jawed male cloth. There's even a remark about it when all the astronaut hopefuls check into the same hotel and congregate in the lobby bar, all going by the pseudonym "Bill Baker". It's up to the series to show us that, aside from the main three, they're not all interchangeable, but so far it feels like an uphill climb.
The Right Stuff isn't dull, but it's not instantly engaging either. It sort of flatly, and traditionally, lays out a story of proud-yet-flawed pilots who long to head to the stars, with predictable troubles and foils thrown in their path. It looks great and the performances are strong, but it offers very little that's new to the overcrowded TV landscape. It certainly feels like a tale that should work better as a TV series -- like HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon miniseries -- but since the show is not using its time to fully flesh out its ensemble the streamlining of story utilized in the original movie makes for a much better watch.
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