Tom Wolfe’s Book.
I have such vivid memories of author Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, “The Right Stuff”; primarily because I delivered a book report on it in high school, but didn’t have time to read the book! Fortunately, I was already a space fanatic who knew the names of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts the way other kids my age knew baseball stats, so I was able to successfully bluff my way through it with reasonable authority (Shhh! Just don’t tell my high school lit teacher…). A year or so later I was still feeling guilty over this act of academic fraud, so I sat down and read the book (after seeing the 1983 movie). Wolfe’s book was revelatory.
Focusing much more on the US/Soviet Space Race from the ground level than from orbit, the book painted portraits of the early “Mercury Seven” astronauts as all-too real, genuinely flawed people. Military pilots Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton weren’t the stoic, bland heroes I thought I knew. They were largely skirt-chasing, troubled family men with dysfunctional (and arguably destructive) personalities who happened to have a knack for dangerous, high-speed machinery which unexpectedly thrust them into the public eye. The book also focused on the unsung heroes who never got into space, such as Air Force pilot Charles “Chuck” Yeager, who broke the sound barrier in 1947 in the Bell X-1 aircraft (named after his wife “Glamorous Glennis”), and Scott Crossfield, who “chased the demon” at mach two. If I’d read the book first, my report would’ve been so much richer. Oh well… lesson learned; always read the book first, kids.
The First Right Stuff (1983).
The 1983 movie of Wolfe’s book would be adapted and directed by Philip Kaufman, director of 1978’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (still the best version of that story ever made). The movie would clock in at a lengthy 3 hours and 13 minutes, but it used its running time well, servicing the book’s concurrent stories (the Edwards Air Force Base rocket plane jockeys, the Mercury Seven astronauts and the astronaut wives) into a larger-than-life epic film whose greatest sin is over-deifying the men Wolfe’s book had so painstakingly made life-sized and real.
Many of the film’s cast would go on to long-lasting film careers. Oscar-winner Ed Harris (“Apollo 13”) leads the film as “squeaky clean Marine” (and future senator) John Glenn, with Scott Glenn (“Hunt for Red October”) as Alan Shepard, Dennis Quaid (“Innerspace”) as “Gordo” Cooper, Lance Henriksen (“ALIENS”) as Wally Schirra, Fred Ward (“Tremors”) as “Gus” Grissom, Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter and Scott Paulin as “Deke” Slayton. The casting of the film was spot-on in most cases, with the lead actors all committing to buzz-cuts for their roles, and really looking the part. The film also featured playwright Sam Shepard as General Chuck Yeager, playing the authentic, gritty counterbalance to the Mercury program’s glamour boys. All earn their stripes, of course. The movie also featured Veronica Cartwright (“ALIEN”) as Betty Grissom, the much put-upon wife of astronaut Gus, as well as Barbara Hershey as the tough-talking, horse-riding Glennis Yeager, wife of Chuck. There’s even supporting roles by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as the two bumbling NASA recruiters (based on real people, but tactfully unnamed in the film).
The movie takes chunks of Wolfe’s prose as dialogue, sometimes awkwardly so; in one scene, John Glenn describes himself as “a lone beacon of self-restraint and self-sacrifice in a squall of car crazies” (who the hell talks like that?). Other dialogue veers dangerously close to pomposity, but the actors rescue it with genuine performances that take some of the piss out. While some of the astronauts’ characterizations are given short shrift, there’s still a lot of star power on screen. Ed Harris shines, as do Scott Glenn and Dennis Quaid. Fred Ward’s portrayal of Gus Grissom is something of a disservice, reducing the brilliant pilot/engineer to a monosyllabic caveman. Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager is also a tad too stoic to be believable, and comes across as more a supernatural force than a human being. That said, there is gorgeous desert and aerial cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (whose wife Mary Jo plays Annie Glenn) which gives the film a scope and feel of a John Ford western. Composer Bill Conti (“Rocky”) delivers a jaunty, rousing musical score that is occasionally aided by classical composer Gustav Holst’s suites from “The Planets.”
The overall vibe of the film is so rousing and grand at times that it almost conflicts with its earthier, more cynical source material. The book tried to sketch the pilots as flawed, sometimes less-than-stellar human beings with a unique gift for “pushing the envelope” of both man and machine. The movie pays some mind to that notion, but it’s quicker to paint its pilots in soaring romantic shades of red, white and blue.
What 1983’s “The Right Stuff” lacks in exactitude, it makes up for in soaring, epic adventure. Despite its long running time, the character-developing segments are smartly divided by riveting aerial and space shot sequences. It’s like taking a roller-coaster ride through the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. The movie succeeds spectacularly, despite its flaws.
Now, 37 years later…
The Right Stuff, S1.1: “Sierra Hotel”, S1.2: “The Goodies”
Disney has partnered with National Geographic and Warner Bros. to bring “The Right Stuff” into the 21st century as a miniseries (arguably a wiser approach today than a 3 hour-plus movie). The new version is being produced by a prestigious group, including showrunner Mark Lafferty (“Castle Rock”) as well as producers Leonardo DiCaprio (!) and Lisa Albert (of “Mad Men”, of which this new series owes a debt). The first two episodes, “Sierra Hotel” and “The Goodies,” are now streaming on DisneyPlus. There is considerable production value on display in this new series, which is to be expected, given 37 years of advances in the art of cinema/TV production since the 1983 version. However, despite the slick new coat of digital paint, the first two episodes haven’t exactly blasted off of the launch pad…
The new cast are largely unknowns to me (much as the original film’s cast were in 1983), and this might better help a new audience into believing them as their characters. As the Mercury Seven astronauts we now have Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn, Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard, Colin O’Donoghue as Gordon Cooper, James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter, Michael Trotter as Gus Grissom, Aaron Staton (“Mad Men”) as Wally Schirra, and Mica Stock as Deke Slayton. Other cast members include Shannon Lucio as Louise Shepard, Eloise Mumford as Trudy Cooper, Nora Zehetner as Annie Glenn, Patrick Fischler as NASA director Bob Gilruth, Eric Laden as Chris Craft and Jackson Pace as bumbling recruiter (and later steely-eyed NASA flight director) Glynn Lunney.
Told in semi-flashback, “Sierra Hotel” opens with the already contentious relationship between first American in space Alan Shepard and his backup pilot, astronaut John Glenn. The two are not fond of each other, as the tail-chasing Shepard is at odds with the squeaky-clean, freckle-faced Glenn, who’d prefer it if his fellow astronauts live up to their as-yet-undeserved reputations as heroic inspirations for generations of school kids to come. Despite their tensions, they eat the now-traditional astronaut breakfast of steak and eggs, as Alan Shepard prepares to blast off into the history books aboard his “Freedom 7” Mercury capsule, atop a Redstone rocket in May of 1961…
Jumping back to 1959, we see the newly formed NASA putting out a recruitment call to the US armed forces for pilots. Most of the candidates are Navy (Shepard, Schirra, Carpenter) and Air Force (Grissom, Slayton, Cooper) with one Marine (Glenn). We see these military guys checking into the Sierra hotel under the same code name Bill. A trio of hapless administrators (Gilruth, Craft and Lunney) are tasked with whittling this 160-plus pool of men into the eventual Mercury Seven. The candidates are then sent to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a series of painful, invasive, and arguably unnecessary tests to determine their stamina and viability for the job. Much of what is seen in “Sierra Hotel” was covered pretty extensively in the 1983 film.
Once the finalists are selected, a press conference is held in April of 1959… over two full years before that first American would fly in space. Before the presser, some of the astronaut personalities are clearly established; Alan Shepard (McDorman) is the “Don Draper” of the group; the secretive, brooding, skirt-chaser whose lack of moral character is compensated for with his talents in the cockpit. John Glenn (Adams) is the public-relations charmer who is easily able to speak for his largely taciturn group. Gordon Cooper (O’Donoghue) is the drawling Air Force pilot whose broken marriage is crudely welded back together for the sake of public relations. Gus Grissom (Trotter) is (once again) portrayed as a simplistic caveman (totally at odds with the sharp-voiced man I’ve heard in old interview tapes). The rest of the Mercury Seven are little more than placeholders (so far). Conspicuously absent in this miniseries is the backstory of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in the X-1. Aviation legend Yeager’s story was fairly prominent in both the book and the 1983 film. Given the miniseries format of this new version, I’m assuming that the other astronauts’ stories, as well as Yeager’s, will be told at some point–I hope (?).
Note: Checking with IMDb, I don’t yet see Chuck Yeager as a character listed for this new series. Hopefully this will be changed/updated soon.
“The Goodies” (a line from the book) sees the astronauts going on press tours, visiting school kids, as well as morale tours of factories where crews work tirelessly on their spacesuits and other materials in anticipation of their Mercury spaceflights. It doesn’t help that the Russians, with their Sputnik probes and Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok flight, dominated the Space Race heavily in those early years, and that pressure only increases the competitiveness of the astronauts with each other, as each one wants to be “first.” That pressure finds some negative release, as some of the astronauts turn to excessive boozing and womanizing during R&R, much to the ire of John Glenn, who is absolutely devoted to his wife Annie. Patrick J. Adams’ Glenn lacks his 1983 counterpart Ed Harris’ warmth and easy-going charisma — coming off as more anal-retentive than affable. Annie Glenn’s real-life stutter was covered in the 1983 movie and is shown in the new miniseries. As a former stutterer, I was pleased to see that Annie’s speech is now portrayed more sympathetically and matter-of-factly than it was in the 1983 film. The new Annie Glenn (Zehetner) is much more confident than Mary Jo Deschanel’s mousier characterization, and that was a pleasant surprise in this otherwise middling adaptation.
Gordon “Gordo” Cooper’s forced marital rehabilitation with his wife Trudy is given more exploration in this version, and the fact of Trudy’s own piloting skill is finally given mention (it was omitted entirely in the 1983 movie). That said, Colin O’Donoghue’s Gordo lacks the authenticity that came with actor Dennis Quaid’s real-life ‘good ol’ boy’ demeanor. Quaid was Gordo Cooper; he even sounded like him. I’m not a particular fan of Quaid’s other works, but he was born for the role of Gordo Cooper. The Irish-born O’Donoghue is serviceable, but lacking a certain authentic Americanness. With two episodes in, we learn a bit more about the astronauts’ family lives than we did in the 1983 film, but the astronauts themselves are still as inscrutable as ever.
Note: I realize that Alan Shepard’s infamous womanizing won’t (and shouldn’t) endear him to many people, especially in the #MeToo era, but the portrait of the reckless Shepard in this miniseries is borderline sociopathic.
A bigger spotlight is given in the new miniseries to newly-minted NASA administrator Bob Gilruth (Fischler) as well as his astronaut recruitment associates Chris Kraft (Eric Laden) and Glynn Lunney (Jackson Pace). While Gilruth and Kraft seem fairly close to their real-life inspirations, Lunney is played largely for laughs. This is unfortunate, as Lunney would, in a few short years, become one of the unsung heroes of the Apollo 13 flight control team. But the Lunney seen in the miniseries is played with all the dignity of the pimply-faced fast-food guy in “The Simpsons.”
Note: Lunney’s role in this miniseries is comparable to the goofy, unnamed astronaut recruiters played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer in the 1983 original, who were played as a dimwitted Mutt & Jeff pair. That portrayal, as well as what I see in the new miniseries, is not the Glynn Lunney I read about in astronaut Jim Lovell’s “Lost Moon” (1994), the basis for 1995’s “Apollo 13”.
There are still six more episodes of this series to go, and I have no idea how much, or how little of Tom Wolfe’s book will be seen in the forthcoming installments. With two episodes in, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of material so far that hasn’t already been covered in the 1983 original. The Mercury program itself has also been spotlighted in numerous documentaries, movies and TV shows, such as “From the Earth to the Moon” (1998), “The Astronaut Wives Club” (2015) and 2017’s “Hidden Figures”. There are documentaries streaming on Netflix right now about other compelling real-life astronaut stories, such as “A Year In Space” (2015), “Challenger” (2020) and the unheralded, grounded female astronaut corps of the “Mercury 13” (2018).
The astronaut stories of “The Right Stuff”, compelling as they are, have been well-covered for decades, beginning with Tom Wolfe’s eye-opening 1979 book. Sprucing these stories up with a fresh coat of “Mad Men”-style paint doesn’t quite reinvent them for a new generation.
“The Right Stuff” series is (of course) available for streaming on DisneyPlus, and the original 1983 film is available from streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube. Tom Wolfe’s book, as well as Blu Ray and DVD versions of the 1983 film, can be purchased contact-free via Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 211,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!