Seems like everybody wants a piece of the early days of NASA. First Apple TV+ took a fictional look at what things might have looked like had women gone into space much sooner. (And under much different circumstances.) Now, Nat Geo and Disney+ are taking on not just one of the best stories about the space race, but one of the the best films about it. Hell, 1983's The Right Stuff — based on the excellent Tom Wolfe book — won four of the eight Academy Awards for which it was nominated.
The question, then, is whether a new 8-part series can hold a candle to the 3-hour-plus movie.
For the unfamiliar, The Right Stuff — both the movie and the book — is the story of the earliest astronauts. The "Mercury Seven." Seven men plucked from a pool of the best the U.S. military had to offer. (Those who went to college, anyway, leaving the likes of the legendary Chuck Yeager on the sidelines — never mind that the first third of the movie is about him trying to break the sound barrier, paving the way for spaceflight.) It was an imperfect bunch, of course, with an impossible job ahead of them: Get to space, and return safely home.
You know the rest, of course.
But it's going to be damn hard to do better than the movie, even if it did take more than a few liberties with the facts.
Let us start, then, with casting.
|Character||1983 Movie||2020 Series|
|Alan Shepard||Scott Glenn||Jake McDorman|
|John Glenn||Ed Harris||Patrick J. Adams|
|Gordon Cooper||Dennis Quaid||Colin O'Donoghue|
|Gus Grissom||Fred Ward||Michael Trotter|
|Deke Slayton||Scott Paulin||Micah Stock|
|Scott Carpenter||Charles Frank||James Lafferty|
|Wally Schirra||Lance Henriksen||Aaron Staton|
|Betty Grissom||Veronica Cartwright||Rachel Buttram|
|Trudy Cooper||Pamela Reed||Eloise Mumford|
|Annie Glenn||Mary Jo Deschanel||Nora Zehetner|
|Louise Shepard||Kathy Baker||Shannon Lucio|
Look, those are some seriously big shoes to fill. And that's not even mentioning Sam Shepard as Yeager — for which he was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role — and Barbara Hershey as Yeager's wife. The film won for the more technical categories in which it was nominated: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Original Score. But in addition to Sam Shepard's nomination, it also was up for Best Art Direction, Best Set Decoration, and Best Picture.
Philip Kaufman's movie — despite being a 3-hour flop in theaters — was anything but a failure.
So what is this new series going to bring to the table, besides a lesser-known cast? Here's the synopsis from Disney:
The two men at the center of the story are Major John Glenn, a revered test pilot and committed family man with unwavering principles, portrayed by Patrick J. Adams ("Suits"), and Lieutenant Commander Alan Shepard, one of the best test pilots in Navy history, portrayed by Jake McDorman ("What We Do in the Shadows," "Lady Bird").
The rest of the Mercury Seven includes Lieutenant Gordon Cooper, portrayed by Colin O'Donoghue ("Once Upon a Time," "Carrie Pilby," "The Rite"), the youngest of the seven who was selected to everyone's surprise; Wally Schirra, portrayed by Aaron Staton ("Mad Men," "Narcos: Mexico," "Castle Rock"), a competitive pilot with a gift for pulling pranks; Scott Carpenter, portrayed by James Lafferty ("The Haunting of Hill House," "Small Town Crime"), a soulful man who was dubbed "The Poet" by the other astronauts; Deke Slayton, portrayed by Micah Stock ("Brittany Runs a Marathon," "Escape at Dannemora"), a taciturn but incredibly intelligent pilot and engineer; and Gus Grissom, portrayed by Michael Trotter ("Underground," "The Evening Hour"), a no-nonsense test pilot who eventually becomes the second man in space.
The astronauts' strengths are equaled only by their flaws. As the men succumb to the temptations that surround them, Project Mercury threatens to come apart. At the heart of the historic drama populated by deeply human characters are two men who become icons — Glenn and Shepard — as they jockey to be the first man in space. The entire program is nearly brought to its knees by their intense rivalry.
The series also follows NASA's engineers, who work against the clock as pressures mount from Washington and a transfixed public. And we witness the underbelly of a myth-making propaganda machine headed by NASA's PR department and aided by the writers and editors at LIFE Magazine.
The series definitely looks like it'll dive deeper into that last bit — how the story of the Mercury Seven was portrayed to the world. (The film touched on that a bit.) And that's not an unimportant part of the story. It's as much about morale as it was propaganda, never mind that the Soviet Union still beat America into space.
And with (we're assuming) an extra 5 hours or so to play with to tell the tale, it's entirely possible that Nat Geo will be able to go higher and faster and farther than the 1983 movie. But we'll have to wait until this fall to see whether The Right Stuff can live up to its name, or its predecessor.
And one more ace of its sleeve? A certain executive producer named Leonardo DiCaprio.
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