Roush Review: ‘The Right Stuff’ Remake Rarely Takes Flight

The Right Stuff Disney+

Men will be boys.

Drawing back the squeaky-clean curtain of public relations shielding the pioneering Mercury 7 astronauts in NASA’s early days, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 bestseller The Right Stuff and Philip Kaufman’s Oscar-winning 1983 movie version humanized this rowdy, raunchy crew of ambitious space jockeys. A tepid eight-part remake, originally announced for the National Geographic channel but now airing on Disney+, feels more like underpowered soap opera. (Two episodes premiere Friday, October 9, with the rest airing weekly.)

“For some reason, people are captivated by their ordinariness,” observes public affairs officer John “Shorty” Powers (played by executive producer Danny Strong), and this new version of a now oft-told story complies by being all too ordinary, doing little to illuminate these extraordinary lives.

Disclosure: It probably didn’t help that I rewatched the Right Stuff movie a few months ago during one of the weekend “movie nights” my household instituted during the COVID-19 lockdown. The memory of Dennis Quaid’s robust portrayal of the cocky and cocksure Gordo Cooper makes Colin O’Donoghue‘s pinched, pained performance of a regretfully unfaithful spouse that much more disappointing.

The Right Stuff Cast Disney Plus

(National Geographic/Gene Page)

Though it rarely achieves electrifying liftoff in the five episodes available for review, what resonates most is a character study of straitlaced den father John Glenn (a solid Patrick J. Adams). He’s prone to lecturing his less disciplined brethren, which includes in underwritten roles Mad Men‘s Aaron Staton as Wally Schirra, One Tree Hill‘s James Lafferty as Scott Carpenter, Micah Stock as Deke Clayton and Michael Trotter as pugnacious Gus Grissom. But the devout Marine is a supernova of unchecked ego who’s hardly a team player when it comes to lobbying to become the first man in space.

Glenn’s rivalry with self-destructively reckless Alan Shepard (the charismatic Jake McDorman), whose vertigo threatens to ground him, is the stuff of good drama and almost reason enough to watch. If only, as they say about the Russians while playing catch-up, they’d gotten there first. Which, of course, ultimately they did.

The Right Stuff, Series Premiere, Friday, Oct. 9, Disney+