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‘Right Stuff’ In Name Only

The Disney+ adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece is a RINO.
by Bill Ryan
October 23, 2020
‘Right Stuff’ In Name Only
(MovieStillsDB / National Geographic / Disney+)

(Bulwark+ members can listen to an exclusive discussion of this piece and the various iterations of The Right Stuff here. Sign up today!)

In 1979, Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff, his landmark book about the beginnings of the American space program. It was distinct from Wolfe’s other books up to that point, which were mostly collections of his essays (the only exception being 1975’s The Painted Word, which in more ways than one is more booklet than book) by being a long work of narrative nonfiction. Literary, wildly stylish—at times to a fault—and huge in scope, The Right Stuff would remain arguably Wolfe’s most ambitious work until he began writing the long novels that would dominate the second half of his career.

The book functions not merely as a history of the space race during the Cold War from the mid-’50s and into the early ’60s; it is also a psychological profile of astronauts and test pilots, a simultaneous satire and celebration of American ingenuity (and, not to be too precious about it, a psychological profile of same). It’s a mini-biography of the seven astronauts chosen for NASA’s Mercury program, as well as a mini-biography of Chuck Yeager, “the ace of all aces . . . among the true brothers of the right stuff.” A war hero and test pilot who was the first man to break the sound barrier but who never went to space—who was not even considered to be part of the Mercury program—Yeager is the standard against which all pilots and astronauts must be measured.

The Right Stuff is also a uniquely death-haunted book, which is sort of curious when you consider that, apart from Gus Grissom, one of the Mercury Seven, who died with Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a Command Module fire in 1967 during a test before the Apollo 1 launch, none of Wolfe’s major protagonists suffered the kind of tragic early death so common among test pilots at the time, and which Wolfe chronicles in almost excruciating detail early on. Hell, at 97 years old, Chuck Yeager isn’t just still alive, he’s on Twitter. But such early deaths were a weekly occurrence in this profession, and Wolfe uses this fact not only to help flesh out his depiction of how such men think, but to highlight the extraordinary danger the seven astronauts—Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, and Grissom—walked into not only knowingly, but gleefully. They were preparing to have a rocket launch them into space, and as Wolfe tells us again and again throughout The Right Stuff, “[America’s] rockets always blow up.”

It’s a marvelous book. Wolfe may have leaned on his pet phrases and metaphors a little too much (such as the one about pilots ascending the ranks of achievement being like climbing a ziggurat), but it’s lively and enthralling and it all works. The Right Stuff easily achieved the status of “instant classic,” and so a cinematic adaptation, or adaptations, of this extremely cinematic book were sure to follow.

As it happens, we’re currently in the middle of the second such adaptation. On October 9, the streaming site Disney+ premiered the first two episodes of its new miniseries based on Wolfe’s book. A third aired on the 16th, and a new episode will arrive every Friday until the eight-episode run ends on November 20. Developed for TV by Mark Lafferty, who also worked on programs like Castle Rock and Halt and Catch Fire, this show, at roughly eight hours in length, should in theory have plenty of room to at least touch upon every facet of Wolfe’s story. Which of course it is under no obligation to do, and so the fact that I’ve got my back up over Lafferty and his staff not doing that might seem unfair (especially after only three episodes, though those three are revealing). But Disney+’s The Right Stuff is not merely not Tom Wolfe’s version—it’s not even its own version. It doesn’t have a version.

Each episode begins with a card informing the viewer that, while based on true events, the story is a “dramatization,” it is “fictionalized.” The order of this is actually reversed, so that the “true events” bit comes last and is therefore emphasized. Still, this is beyond the terms of the standard “Based on True Events” card which is all you usually get, and I genuinely appreciate the honesty. Of course, it could follow Wolfe to the letter and, being a dramatization, it would still be fiction, but this new The Right Stuff makes up so much that it had better say something. And what it is, what it’s done, is turn The Right Stuff into Prestige TV. However, it hasn’t done this by making the kind of show that this somewhat exhausting phrase is, at its most optimistic, referring to, shows like The Sopranos or Twin Peaks: The Return. Instead, it has found, as have so many other TV shows, that “prestige” can be achieved, or at least sought, through formula and mimicry.

Chuck Yeager, for starters, is gone completely, presumably because he doesn’t “serve the plot.” The show begins with the search for the seven men who will make up the Mercury Seven astronauts (and not much time is spent even on that). The focus throughout these episodes is on Shepard (Jake McDorman) and Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), and how these two disparate personalities—Shepard the boozing, tortured ladies’ man; Glenn the honest, upright Boy Scout—are destined to clash. But they’re both wildly ambitious pilots, and so they’re not so different. It also gives Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) a haunted past involving rampant alcoholism, which led to an injured hand, which in turn may have contributed to a crash that killed his friend and fellow pilot Cal Cunningham. This is all completely invented, and ignores Wolfe’s profile of test pilots who, for one thing, always blamed their fellow pilots for their own deaths, and whose lives, for another thing, tended to be a cycle of carefree, egotistical “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving.” According to Wolfe, this was all of them. According to Disney+ and National Geographic, which produces the series, sure everybody (except Glenn!) drinks, but Shepard and Cooper have real problems. And, in keeping with the Dark Night of the Soul Prestige TV template, these men hate themselves for it. This is the kind of show where two characters (Cooper and Grissom, in this case) get into a shouting argument until one tackles the other into a motel pool.

The series also, at least so far, jettisons the big picture, the historical context. Yes, the Russians are around there somewhere, and lip service is paid (by Glenn, of course) to the idea of the Mercury program being an important moment in history. Still: there are motel pools to be tackled into. Gone, too, is Wolfe’s sense of the sardonic in which he wraps up all of this, including what he regards as the curious mentality behind the space race (at one point, regarding the sense of urgency the American government felt about beating the Russians into space, Wolfe simply writes “What emergency?”). In its place the series has added, well, nothing, really, beyond standard-issue marital drama (including dialogue of a progressive nature more in tune with 2020 than 1960), and a visual style focused entirely on lighting. There’s one scene, set in an office in the daytime, lit entirely, at least within the reality of the scene, by sunlight coming through the windows. In one shot, there are at minimum three lamps visible, all turned off.

This version of The Right Stuff has about as little to do with Tom Wolfe’s book as it’s possible to be and still be about the Mercury program. Yet it wants the received glory of being associated with a classic book. For all it resembles what Wolfe wrote, the show could have been called anything—Mercury Seven or Motel Pool Fight, for example—and the producers could have saved themselves the cost of buying the rights. And yet they went the route they did, for reasons that should be obvious by now (episode three is titled “Single Combat Warrior,” named after one of Wolfe’s chapters and pet metaphors; at no point does the episode deal with what that title means, either directly, or thematically, or subtextually). At heart, this new The Right Stuff is a deeply cynical show, but it’s not the healthy cynicism of Wolfe. It is entirely avaricious in nature.

For those frustrated by this, there’s good news: Philip Kaufman’s 192-minute film version of The Right Stuff, released in 1983, exists. Kaufman, a director whose career has always been unusual, had by then built a strange-but-not-undistinguished résumé, the highlights being The White Dawn, The Wanderers, his brilliant remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1978, and the screenplay for The Outlaw Josey Wales. But The Right Stuff would obviously be the Big One. And it flopped. Kaufman had one more great film in him, 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, followed by a lot of curiosities and apparent retirement. Nevertheless, his film of The Right Stuff is a masterpiece (and not for nothing, it’s one of the greatest cinematic adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen), boasting a remarkable cast that includes Ed Harris as Glenn, Fred Ward as Grissom, Scott Glenn as Shepard, and a delightful Donald Moffat as Lyndon Johnson. And Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, who functions for Kaufman as he did for Wolfe, as a historical marker, as a peak to be reached for, as a man who knows better than anyone what all of this is really about, but either won’t, or can’t quite, articulate it. Kaufman’s film, like Wolfe’s book, begins with death, and the probability that a fiery doom is where this kind of human exploration will end for anyone who tries it. “There was a demon that lived in the air,” says Levon Helm (in a stroke of casting genius, the former drummer and singer for The Band plays both the narrator and Jack Ridley, Yeager’s trusted engineer and supplier of Beeman’s gum) at the very beginning of the film. This is Kaufman’s line, not Wolfe’s, but it is adapted from a Wolfe line. The film is at once both Wolfe’s and Kaufman’s.

The film’s tone is unlike anything I can imagine the filmmakers behind the series ever even considering. In addition to Yeager’s inclusion throwing off the traditional three-act structure preferred by too many in Hollywood, and adding a tone of the past to the present as it is happening, there is the mingled cynicism and patriotism that, as traditional narrative cinema and TV goes these days, cannot live beneath the same roof. If you’re going to deal with this country as a subject at all, you’re either all in on the cynicism and want to burn the whole thing down, or you’re a flag-hugger. But Kaufman’s film, even more so than Wolfe’s book, is both. Lyndon Johnson is a figure of ridicule, as are most of the government scientists involved in the program (“Our Germans are better than their Germans”), several of the astronauts are unapologetically unfaithful to their wives. But John Glenn’s not a joke. None of the astronauts are, nor are their wives. The successful, unbelievable completion of these impossible tasks is not a joke. Kaufman is able to look with wonder at these people and what they accomplished, and shake his head at the arguably arbitrary reasons not behind the space program itself, but behind the need to do it now, at once (“What emergency?”).

Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is an honest, thrillingly conflicted, ambitious, and beautiful film whose director cared about the book he was adapting. He didn’t just buy the title.

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.