Two astronauts are sitting at a table together eating breakfast. A rocket is being prepared for a manned launch. Only one of those astronauts will be in that rocket, but they both unquestionably have The Right Stuff.
Based on the novel of the same name by Tom Wolfe this series on the Disney+ streaming service goes into greater detail than the epic 1983 movie. While that movie told its story with much broader paint strokes, this 8-episode series chooses to focus on the personal lives of the Mercury 7 made up of Scott Carpenter, Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn. We see how driven each of these astronauts are, but where the movie simply painted them as socially awkward at best, this series gives us a cast of characters who look like they could have come out of any episode of Mad Men with the way they objectify women. Each of them, save for John Glenn, come off as pretty unpleasant people once you scratch beneath the surface. Even in the series, there is a magazine reporter whose job is to make each of these men look like sparkling heroes, despite all of the tarnish they wear. They behave as if they love their wives, but when they go off to Florida for their astronaut training they almost immediately start to stray by hooking up with other women at any given moment. How their marriages manage to last is a miracle, but this could be looked at as a sign of that time. Up through the first three episodes, the only one who has shown any sign of virtue and decency is John Glenn as he strives (and thus far succeeds) in being faithful to his wife. Along the way we see other cracks begin to form. One pilot accuses another of being delinquent in his duties regarding a past Air Force assignment. Another astronaut discovers he may very well have a medical problem that could disqualify him from ever flying in the space program, but he lies to cover it up. Then there is the backbiting and scheming that goes on. In the 1983 film, while they were very competitive, they also understood the importance of working together as a team to get the US Space Program operating to where it can catch up with the Russian Space Program. But here, all we see are astronauts in training who are friendly and most pleasant to each other in public but will sabotage the other’s chances in the hopes of being the first man in space.
Interestingly, this streaming series’ biggest criticism has been in the characterization of these men, especially as philanderers. The people offering these critics always say the same thing, that they despise how these men are portrayed, even though they acknowledge the fact that such behavior was commonplace back then. Yes, such behavior was commonplace and I don’t know if what we are seeing here is accurate or not. At the beginning of each episode, there is the disclaimer that “this dramatization, although fictionalized, is based on actual events. Dialogue and certain events and characters have been created or altered for dramatic purposes.” I don’t know if this behavior we see in the astronauts is accurate or not, but what it does do is show that they are no less human than any of the rest of us and that they live with the same weaknesses and temptations as we all do.
The cast for this series is particularly good, but the two standouts are Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn and Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard. McDorman already proved what kind of acting chops he has during his time on the CBS series Limitless. As for Adams, this man looks like he was born to play John Glenn. He has the kind of face that the press would devour, and he plays John Glenn with an interesting, but believable, sense of duality. He easily shows the outgoing and popular John Glenn that the public loves to give their hero-worship to, but when he’s in a private setting, whether alone, with his wife, or even with just the other astronauts, we see a man who appears to be extremely introverted. Adams does a great job of giving us both sides of that same coin, and yet still be the same character.
After only three episodes I find the stories to be intriguing enough to see all of the hurdles, both personal and technical, that all of those involved with the space program had to deal with. The focus does lean more towards the astronauts and their personal lives, but at no time are any of these people played so badly or in such a bad light as to alienate them from the viewer. I would like to see a better balance between the lives of the astronauts and the overall challenges the space program had to deal with, but for now, the show has enough strengths to keep coming back for more.