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Disney+ addition 'The Right Stuff' highlights a different kind of star war

Disney clearly thinks it needs shows like this to be taken seriously. But it would likely be better served by doing what it does best.
Image: The Right Stuff, Disney Plus
Does the cast of "The Right Stuff" have... the right stuff?Gene Page / National Geographic/Disney Plus

Since its arrival, Disney+ has struggled in the content game. Other than “The Mandalorian,” which was a giant hit right out of the gate, the would-be Netflix rival has mostly relied on its older library of films, the 2019 releases arriving on streaming, documentaries that focus on the making of the content it’s selling, and “Hamilton.”

The muddled message of the series suggests that without its tentpole franchises, Disney+ is still struggling to define itself.

Part of this isn’t Disney’s fault, as it could not have foreseen that a pandemic would derail the entire Marvelverse plan for 2020. But the streamer has also been deeply picky about what makes it to Disney+ ranks. Now, just under a year since its launch, Disney+ has finally released its first drama not directly tied to an existing franchise, “The Right Stuff.” It’s a reminder that not everything on Disney+ has to be about aliens or intergalactic warfare. But the message of the series suggests that without its tentpole franchises, Disney+ is still struggling to define itself.

One could, of course, argue that “The Right Stuff” is perfect for Disney — it is, after all, both about real-life superheroes and a war over stars. Based on the 1979 Tom Wolfe book of the same name, it’s a retelling of the early years of the space race, and the Mercury 7 astronauts that helped launch the space program. There’s already a famous 1983 film that dramatized the material, which was not made by Disney or any of its subsidiaries. (In fact, “The Right Stuff” was not originally envisioned as a Disney+ product at all. Put into production back in 2017, the show was meant for the National Geographic Channel, which at the time was owned by 20th Century Fox. Though “The Right Stuff” wasn’t filmed until after the merger in 2019, it was still listed as a NatGeo release up until last spring.)

The 1983 film is deeply steeped in the patriotic Reaganesque “Morning in America” attitude of the day, where landing on the moon first was provided as proof of our greatness. “The Right Stuff,” too, notes that this is a world where men are men, and pilots doubly so. There’s dialogue that refers to the friendly competition between the armed forces, an entire scene where a pair of characters emotionally bond over raising and lowering the American flag on a daily basis, and much glorifying of heterosexually masculine pursuits, be it drinking oneself under the table or bear hunting.

The series centers around John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams), who quickly becomes a leading figure due to his media savvy and his politicking, but we’re really supposed to side with him because he is a self-proclaimed square who doesn’t cheat on his wife and is openly Christian. Compare that to the more “tragic hero” figure of Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), who likes carousing, driving fast and complaining that he’s not being given enough chances to put his life in danger. From Gordon Cooper (Colin O'Donoghue) to Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), each of these men is ranked as much for their ability to refrain from drinking too much and stay faithful to their wives as they are their flying ability.

Shows like “Mad Men” made it mandatory for all period pieces wishing to be considered prestige TV look back on this era with cynicism. “The Right Stuff” attempts to have it both ways, highlighting disillusionment with programs like NASA while glorifying what those programs did. The series doesn’t fully explore the risks being taken, but it also doesn’t hide the fact that these heroes were created by NASA to make itself look more impressive, and sold to the American public by Life magazine to improve circulation.

In a post-“Hidden Figures” world, the series feels dreadfully white. But it does draw back the curtain on how the wives of the astronauts were forced into traditional feminine roles for the cameras and for the program’s image. This point is made mainly through the story of Cooper’s wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford), who gave up dreams of flying professionally for his career, despite being the better pilot. (In real life, she was the only one of the Mercury 7 wives to have a private pilot’s license.) Still, those moments are subplots at best, not unlike the lives of these women, subsumed to the dreams of men to be first in space.

But even as the show tries to celebrate the machismo and sacrifice of these test pilots, an undercurrent of sadness runs throughout the whole series. This pathos is perhaps a sign that “The Right Stuff” fancies itself an awards show contender. But it’s not on-brand for the House of Mouse, whose black and white fantasy storytelling has been so clearly defined for so long. “The Right Stuff” is, by far, the best traditional drama on the streamer to date, but is this the right stuff for the future of Disney+? Not necessarily. Disney clearly thinks it needs shows like this to be taken seriously. But it likely would be far better served by doing what it does best.