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'The Right Stuff' Premiere: Disney+ show on Project Mercury pilots nothing like Tom Wolfe's book or 1983 film

The first two episodes of Disney Plus and National Geographic's show 'The Right Stuff' inspired by the book of the same name authored by Tom Wolfe, premiered on Friday
(Disney Plus)
(Disney Plus)

'The Right Stuff' takes us two years before a historic moment was recorded in the archives of space achievements that brought glory to NASA. Two years before Project Mercury's countdown began and John Glenn took the seat of the pilot onboard the first mission by the US and NASA to put the first man in space. As we travel back in time we see how the beginning of Project Mercury was all about a bunch of scientists and test pilots chasing glory all while attempting to make history and getting a lead on Russia in the space war. It is more about politics, funding, congress, and dysfunctional families and less about innovation in space technology. 

The first batch of test pilots is brought in from the Navy, the Marines, and other corners of the country and the briefing by the NASA Director hints at how unconventional the next phase of their lives would be, were they to sign up to be a part of the program. Imagine being informed by people responsible for the program -- Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) and Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) -- that you as a test pilot are going to be occupying the space in a nuclear missile minus its core. Not all of them are excited, of course, and one of them, Gordo Cooper initially even attempts to put in for a transfer from being a test pilot because of his family that is falling apart. So, the two episodes spanning close to 45-minutes each is a portrayal of not the events racing up to the historic moment but is made of stories about people who constructed this moment with advertising, PR, and hard work. 

A still of Bob Gilruth with Keith in 'The Right Stuff'. (Disney Plus)

In the first few scenes of the premiere episode, we see John Glenn (Patrick J Adams) and Alan Sheperd (Jake McDorman) having filet mignon for breakfast and Alan jokingly comments on how this could not be a fitting breakfast. If you think this reeks of privilege, you are not the only one, but then what else can you expect from a show that revolves around white men fighting to be chosen and picked as the best? You could claim that this is a retelling of a real event and so the makers cannot be faulted for their choice, and that brings me to my next point. This show, in the first two episodes, has already strayed way off from the book authored by Tom Wolfe.

The show was initially made to be broadcast on National Geographic, and so many expected the show to be based on more facts and less fiction. If you are one such viewer, steer clear. This show is more fiction than not. After having watched two episodes, however, what we can be sure of is that this is nowhere close to the engaging 'For All Mankind', another space show that is set a few years after the events that took place in 'The Right Stuff'. For one, because the show reimagines the timeline of the space war between Russia and the US, there is room for inclusivity. Secondly, even the bits that the show has picked from fact, like the characters of the first flight director who had a connection to Hitler's regime, or the astronauts such as Gordo Cooper, and his relationship with his wife Sarah, who is also a trained pilot, is portrayed in an engaging manner. 

Another thing, one must realize when choosing to invest time on this show is to realize that this is less even about space and more about interpersonal relationships. For instance, in the initial scenes of the first episode, we see Alan tell John to leave him alone, even on a day such as this (he is referring to the launch of the space shuttle), because John did the worst by backstabbing him. This is in reference to something that happened after the initial list of test pilots were filtered and seven were selected. The first seven astronauts of the American space program. It is this comment that serves us as a yardstick by which we must judge the theme of this show. It is about program directors working with PR and advertising to get congress to loosen their purse strings, and the politics of staying relevant despite age catching up, especially for test pilots who have a short career span. Going forward, will the show take the space aspect more seriously? 

New episodes of 'The Right Stuff' can be streamed on Disney Plus every Friday.