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Monday, June 14, 2021

The Right Stuff- How does this ‘Part Mad Men/ part First Man’ Fare on Disney Plus?

Welcome to the 1960s- a place where men were ‘masculine’, women were just there, and you would get to know of a lone rocket that was seemingly blasted to space. All this and more can be found on The Right Stuff- a new television drama that is being streamed on Disney Plus. This TV series is the perfect place for those who want to get the old flavor of mid-century Americana and the history of the space race. The Right Stuff is here, and it has a story to tell- the story of the first Astronauts of America. 

This show has been produced by Nat Geo, and the new series is heavily based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 non-fiction bestseller, one that completely laid bare the intricacies, and the ingrained lives of the astronauts boarding the Mercury 7. These were the same pilots who had raced the Soviets to space. Mark the date- October 9, when the Right Stuff gets released. The show will be kickstarted with a couple of episodes first on Disney Plus, and then a new installment as every week settles in. 

What is The Right Stuff About?

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May 5, 1961 is when the show begins. The first frame shows a couple of square-jawed boys who keep pounding the track in the darkness- completely unable to fall asleep- all until one zooms past the other. Now, this precisely sums them up- they want to be fast. Not just fast, but scarily fast. And if you are wondering all is well between these flyboys, let us tell you- it is not so easy. They have their own underlying tensions, which they must put aside as they prepare for the historic day when the USA will finally join Russia as yet another country to put their citizens in space. They would find themselves thrust off in a white, gleaming rocket which would keep hurtling out of the Florida sky and into the atmosphere. 

The premise for the Right Stuff has been set. But all that is required now, is to provide some context to the entire premise. The show then cuts back to 1959. The audience is here introduced to the American elite- military test pilots, who are just a cocky bunch of flyboys, dedicating their entire life to fly, drink, and be chauvinists. And the show informs you very kindly, that if there is something that these playboys would like more than cheating on their spouses, and flying their airplanes- is that they like to be the best. No wonder they jumped at the chance to try out for NASA. 

Philip Kaufman had previously created a movie about the same Project Mercury astronauts as Wolfe wrote in his book. The 1983 movie is quite an essential watch for those who are seriously interested in checking out true stories that are quite extraordinary. But if you are wondering if that is the only reason why the TV show version by Nat Geo seems familiar, you are wrong. The credits come up in the beginning state that this screenplay is closely based on the Kaufman film. Why does it still look familiar? A history revisited too often.

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Does The Right Stuff Offer Something New?

What are you expecting out of this TV show? Well, since it is the 1960s, you have vintage tunes blaring out of jukeboxes, and suits with slim ties. Interestingly, you would find the Mission Control filled with people who wear cigarettes and short sleeves. The American upper class displayed through coiffured wives who would open the door to their homes only to find the bulbs popping straight on their immaculate lawns. This isn’t something new- you can find these in TV shows and movies like First Man, Apollo 13, The Astronaut Wives Club, and Hidden Figures- something that you have seen so much that alternate realities have come off the same- For All Mankind. Why should you watch it then? 

First Man, released in 2018, gave quite a new perspective to the first moon landing by Neil Armstrong. It locked the audience inside the cockpit of Armstrong- which definitely provided us with the first-person view of leaving the earth. The Right Stuff, on the other hand, doesn’t care itself much with the mechanics of space travel. Rather, it focuses on the astronauts themselves. Since this is a TV show, the series focuses more on the lives and psyche of the astronauts. The show focuses mostly on the transformation of these suave men into a rat pack, with their test pilot swaggerm and the political pressure that comes with it. To put it in perspective, the TV show is more Mad Men, and less of First Men. You will come face to face with these characters who have deep character flaws, but try to get over them to adapt to the changing times. 

Remember, they aren’t trying to change the story. The Right Stuff is the stuff of legends- hence this is more of a dramatic reenactment of the same. After all, these people were the first astronauts in American history. 

If you know your history right, you would find how this Disney Plus show decides to portray its main tension through the conflicts between Alan Shepard and John Glenn. John Glenn is someone who can be extremely ambitious, but upright- someone who doesn’t shirk away from the limelight, simply because he has no skeletons in his closet. Alan Shepard, his foil, goes against fame simply because his own life is such a mess. Maintaining the balance between them is Gordon Cooper, who has to keep several secrets close to his heart. 

It is no surprise that these men actually resemble the microcosm of the American society of the 1960s- willing to put everything on the line at the shot of being a legend. Or, this Disney Plus show, ‘The Right Stuff’ could have them blow their own legacies off.

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