‘The Real Right Stuff’ Review: A Movie Still Waiting for Liftoff

Project Mercury’s mission to blast the first American astronauts into space was fastidiously undramatic. NASA’s founding administrator T. Keith Glennan — still introducing the agency by its initials like a proper debutante — aimed to send his seven pilots up and down in a metal pillbox that even a chimp couldn’t crash. From engineering to public relations, there was no room for human malfunction. It took two decades for the journalist Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” to reveal the frizzed wires underneath the capsule’s smooth exterior: the ego clashes, the stress and depression, and the wives who took tranquilizers so they could serve cheery can-do-isms to Life Magazine.

Tom Jennings’s documentary “The Real Right Stuff,” produced by National Geographic and streaming on Disney+, hammers the unruliness back under the hood. Alan Shepard’s philandering, for example, is polished to a quick mention of his appetite for “cookies,” as the astronauts’ female fans were nicknamed, over shots of women boating Cocoa Beach in modest swimsuits, as though all involved parties were merely hot for wholesome fun in the sun. With the meaty Mercury 7 gossip cleaved to Disney+’s concurrent fictionalized series, “The Right Stuff,” the documentary is a bland chronology of successful launches and minor mishaps, constructed from scraps of archival newscasts, home videos and book excerpts read by Wolfe himself. The only dissonant note is from the synthetic, heavy-panting score, which seems anxious that an alien might — just might! — decide to cling to the heat shield.

Sixty years have not dimmed the Mercury crew’s courageous, telegenic appeal. In another life, the dimpled John Glenn could have poached James Cagney’s career of playing bruiser priests and boxers with a heart of gold. Alas, the film’s polished heroics let the astronauts’ humanity whiz by out of reach. Instead, it’s the anonymous spectators who shoulder the film’s emotional power. These lesser mortals are constrained by gravity and fate to remain on the ground. Yet, the heart swells to see a crowd united in celebration of an America that delivered on a sky-high scientific ambition.

The Real Right Stuff
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on Disney+.

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