By John Hanlon
With millions of Americans are stuck at home during this pandemic, it feels like the right time to remember a time when the American people looked up to the skies and saw unlimited potential in space exploration. The new limited Disney + series The Right Stuff seeks to do just that in its retelling of the story of the Mercury 7 and their work for the space program in the 1950s and the 1960s.
The eight-episode series (5 episodes were released for review) introduces these esteemed astronauts and shows the uphill battles they and NASA faced in completing their missions. Adapted from the Tom Wolfe book (which was also adapted into the 1983 film), the program focuses on the mission and the astronauts themselves as NASA struggles to compete with the Russians in the space race.
The premiere episode sets the atmosphere of the story nicely, focusing on the selection of the Mercury 7. In fact, the premiere episode shows NASA trying to narrow their choices from a large field of test pilots in the late 1950s. Although the space mission seems dangerous, the drama shows that the lives of all of these test pilots were packed with risks. In a particularly noteworthy scene, an overeager NASA assistant (Jackson Pace) presents an outdated list of possible astronauts to his superiors. The list includes several men who died on their piloting missions and one superior harshly points out that tough reality.
By the end of the first episode, the Mercury 7 are chosen. The group of highly-competitive explorers includes John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty), Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue), Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), Wally Schirra (Aaron Staton), Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) and Deke Slayton (Micah Stock). Although the show features all of these astronauts, the main two characters it focuses on in its early episodes are Glenn and Shepard, two intelligent men who have divergent approaches to the mission. The introspective Glenn wants to focus on the work and getting the job done while Shepard wants to enjoy the perks of the powerful position.
There are a lot of characters at play here —including Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) the director of the mission — and the program has trouble balancing all of them but it does a solid job showing the general world that these characters live in. From the space race against the Russians to the upcoming presidential election, the program strives to capture the time and environment that these astronauts lived in and how they had to take on new roles in order to get the mission off the ground.
The second episode, for instance, delves into the public relations campaign the astronauts went on to gain traction for funding the mission. None of the astronauts were prepared for that part of the mission and none of them were fully prepared for it but a few of them manage to thrive in the spotlight.
It’s easy to forget the historic nature of the Mercury 7 mission and like the 1980s film, The Right Stuff series shows some of the stories behind the scenes. It never delves as deeply as it could into the complexities of the characters but it does present them as complicated characters struggling to balance their home lives with their professions although some of the scenes showing their home lives are only superficially captivating as their families aren’t given much to do.
That being said, there’s a lot to admire about this new Disney + series and its goal of bringing this captivating story to a new audience. It isn’t as in-depth and compelling as it could be but it’s solid storytelling nonetheless.