Understuffed

‘The Right Stuff’ TV remake is an embarrassment

‘The Right Stuff’ is one of the greatest movies ever made, an epic chronicle of bravery and odds-beating historical triumph, full of romance, action, humor, and star-making performances from some of its generation’s greatest movie stars. It features a stirring, Oscar-winning Bill Conti score, a brilliant script, and gripping, realistic space-flight sequences. The movie’s beginning is thrilling and terrifying, and its last five minutes are some of the most inspiring moments ever put to film. It fits an entire generation’s story into three and a half hours.

‘The Right Stuff,’ a miniseries now airing on Disney+, is an insult to the memory of that film, though that film isn’t really a memory since it shows up regularly on streaming services. You can’t call this version a tribute, it’s more like a high-school theater production of the movie written by someone who either didn’t see the movie or didn’t like it much.

In this new ‘The Right Stuff,’ apparently nothing in the space program was more important than the man-rivalry between Alan Shepard and John Glenn. The movie built up the “who will be the first man in space” tension a little bit, but for the miniseries, it’s the whole sandwich. And the contrast couldn’t be starker. As in the movie, John Glenn is a politician-in-the-making, a handsome gee-whiz Boy Scout. The movie’s Alan Shepard, played with a weird twinkle by Scott Glenn, is dashing, kind of weird, and a little bit racist. He gets his comeuppance with a colostomy bag. In the TV show, Alan Shepard is a hotshot douchebag with washboard abs, about as likable as a date-rapist. The series plays him like Don Draper in Space. By the end of episode 2, you hate him, and hate America.

In the TV ‘Right Stuff,’ Alan Shepard has a twinkle, but it’s an evil twinkle. Meanwhile, Gordon Cooper is a bland, mopey Southern guy just trying to save his marriage. In the movie, Dennis Quaid played Gordo as an arrogant bad boy. You got to see his marriage dissolve, though the film skips over the affair he had that dissolved the marriage. In the TV show, you still don’t see the affair, the marriage is already dissolved, and you can understand why, because Gordo is an alcoholic drip who looks like Phil from Modern Family.

No Chuck Yeager, No Right Stuff

‘The Right Stuff’ TV series takes its time not doing much of anything. The first episode opens on the day of the first Mercury space launch, and then for some reason flashes back two years to a series of scenes where you have trouble figuring out which astronaut is who because they’re all so bland. Whereas the movie is pretty much all test-piloting for the first hour, the show features only one scene in an airplane, and that’s so we can see an astronaut named “Cal” die after cracking his head on the cockpit glass.

This is a weak callback to the terrifying scene in the movie where Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard, passes out as he nears the speed of sound, cracks his head on the glass, and somehow reawakens in time to safely land his little orange jet plane. But where is Chuck Yeager in the TV version of ‘The Right Stuff’? Nowhere. That’s right. In the Right Stuff TV show, there is no Chuck Yeager. 

The Right Stuff

While The Right Stuff is the story of the Mercury 7, Tom Wolfe’s book, and the movie, it’s also the story of Yeager, a pilot who was too good, and too brave, to be the “Spam in a can” material that the Mercury astronauts became. He’s the story’s tragic hero, but also not that tragic, because he busts through the ether and catches that demon on the other side. As Wolfe describes it in the book:

“There was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in… Perhaps because it could not be talked about, the subject began to take on superstitious, even mystical outlines. A man either had it or he didn’t! There was no such thing as having most of it… The man who truly had it could ignore the rules… he would challenge all the limits…”

Yeager is the very definition of “The Right Stuff.” By deleting him from the narrative, the TV show blinks itself into meaninglessness.

Unhappy wives, unhappy lives

You’d think, this being nearly 40 years after the movie, that the TV ‘The Right Stuff’ would somehow be a bit more feminist than the original. But that’s not really the case. The movie featured tremendous performances from excellent actresses like Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Pamela Reed, and Veronica Cartwright, who said and did more with a look than the astronaut wives in ‘The Right Stuff’ show do with long, boring monologues that go nowhere. The actresses playing the wives are fine, but not memorable, and their appearance seems dutiful, not necessary.

In the show, we learn that Trudy Cooper, Gordo’s wife, was a pilot in her own right, a detail that the movie strangely omitted. But they don’t flash back to show her flying, even though they do flash back to all kinds of other things, including scenes that just happened five minutes before. It’s not like “Trudy Cooper, Lady Pilot” is even fresh material. ABC covered it just fine on The Astronaut Wives’ Club in 2013. That show was a little corny and soapy, but it was still better than the new ‘The Right Stuff’, and seemed to actually enjoy its own existence.

‘The Right Stuff’ can’t seem to decide what story it wants to tell. It just links together random scenes and montages with the most clichéd period music imaginable. It doesn’t seem that interested in birth of NASA, in America, or even in stuff. Mostly, as far as I can tell, it’s a portrait of a handsome jackass who cheats on his wife. While that’s part of the Mercury story, and was even part of the story in the original movie, it’s not the most important part.

This is just another modern space exploration saga that doesn’t seem that interested in space, like First Man, which showed Neil Armstrong crying on the moon, and Ad Astra, which was about Brad Pitt’s daddy issues. It reduces the Mercury 7 to a passel of sad astronauts. If you want to learn about the Mercury program, read the book or watch the original movie. It will tell you all you need to know, and the movie also features Jeff Goldblum. If you want to watch a space show on Disney+, allow me to recommend The Mandalorian. That guy has The Right Stuff. Plus Baby Yoda.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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