NEW YORK – The progress of Elon Musk's SpaceX company and NASA's successful launch to the International Space Station in May have revived public enthusiasm for extraterrestrial exploration.
'The Right Stuff,' streaming Disney+, has realistic, nostalgic elements
Seizing on this opportune moment, National Geographic has reworked "The Right Stuff" – Tom Wolfe's iconic 1979 book about the astronauts known as the Mercury 7 – as a television series.
Given how fans feel about the acclaimed, eponymous 1983 film, that's a risky and daunting proposition – even if Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the new project's executive producers. (Among other distinctions, Philip Kaufman's movie version was enrolled in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2013.)
Close to four decades have passed, however, and this format may be a better way to introduce a new generation of viewers to a story with which they may not be well-acquainted. The update may not equal its epic predecessor. But it does possess its fair share of memorable moments.
All eight episodes of the drama, which Mark Lafferty ("Genius: Einstein"), developed, are available to stream on Disney+. The program's mature themes, which include adultery and excessive drinking, together with partial nudity, sensuality and crude dialogue point to an adult audience.
The series concentrates on Project Mercury's first few years, from its formation in the late 1950s to Alan Shepard's (Jake McDorman) 15-minute solo flight on May 5, 1961 – during which he became the first American in space.
Set on the morning of that historic day, the opening moments of the series establish the rivalry between Shepard and John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), a contest that figures prominently throughout the drama. As they share a breakfast of filet mignon at Cape Canaveral, the politically minded Glenn says, "A man's gotta think about what he's going to say."
To which his competitor counters: "A man should be thinking about what he's going to do." The contrast between the two couldn't be starker, and it was only sharpened over the years they trained together.
The show portrays veteran Navy test pilot Shepard as overly fond of alcohol and an inveterate philanderer. And it depicts his wife, Louise (Shannon Lucio), confronting him about his infidelity.
Louise's real-life counterpart was, by contrast, known as "St. Louise" for the patience with which she endured rumors of her husband's wayward behavior. Yet the couple remained married for 53 years until the astronaut’s 1998 death from leukemia at age 74.
Family man Glenn's marriage to the former Annie Castor endured 73 years until his death at 95 in 2016. A devout Christian, the ex-Marine aviator and future four-term U.S. senator from Ohio identifies himself as "a square" – and thus a man set apart from his hard-living colleagues.
In the clothes the characters wear and the cars they drive, as well as through its musical soundtrack, "The Right Stuff" successfully evokes its period setting. More substantively, viewers of faith will appreciate the sincere, realistic way the show handles Glenn's beliefs.
Sharp writing and consistently strong performances also mark the series, although the Glenn-Shepard competition often squeezes out other story lines. By emphasizing these astronauts' all-too-human frailties, moreover, the program doesn’t adequately account for the reverence in which they were held by the public.
Still, this new – if not necessarily improved – adaptation of Wolfe's narrative is worth a look.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.