Men at the Edge of the Envelope

The Righteousness of The Right Stuff

Warner Brothers

The Right Stuff is about men—men whose lives revolve around “flying and drinking and drinking and driving and driving and balling,” not always in that order, but to a degree that’s beyond the ability of an ordinary man and just short of the point where pursuing one would destroy access to the others. These aren’t hobbies or interests for the men, they’re needs. Or maybe they’re symptoms of having the titular stuff. It’s this stuff that lets the men climb to the top of life’s ziggurat and stay there. Combined with NASA’s rockets, President Kennedy’s ambition, and the hopes of a nation on the backfoot in the Cold War, this stuff gets a man sent to the heavens. It’s this stuff that turned the first astronauts into the ur-men of postwar white America, heroes of a certain type of mid-century myth. 

The titles of real-life spaceman movies reflect bravery, masculinity, and selflessness: For All Mankind, First Man, and, monumentally, The Right Stuff. Every version of The Right Stuff—Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, Philip Kaufman’s 1983 movie, and last year’s National Geographic/Disney+ TV show—retells the myth of the first astronaut crew, the Mercury Seven, with varying degrees of awe. Reverence is expected with this kind of source material; it’s hard to repeat a myth without reinforcing it, especially when the center of that myth is a monumental feat of science. And there’s little to be gained from tearing down astronauts. Militarism and government spending can be debated, but the astronauts are inevitably painted as the innocent volunteers at the end of the chain of command. No matter how much the book, movie, or show may depict destructive bravado and drunken extramarital affairs, The Right Stuff does little to deflate the heroes at its center. Their stuff is always otherworldly, even if it leads to some off-putting actions. At its most critical, the story can do little more than bring the men down to earth on feet of clay. They are giants. Their only enemy is time. With each new adaptation, we get a little further away from their accomplishments. When we look back, the men seem a little smaller, a little dimmer in the light of the present.  

This has been the case since Tom Wolfe put their stories on paper. In popular memory, The Right Stuff is a celebration of manly achievements. The mass-market paperback is a fixture on dads’ bookshelves, with its dark blue cover, the title in a bold serif font hanging above the iconic image of the astronauts in their shiny jumpsuits and helmets. It’s masculine, federal, American. But for all its lively, celebratory prose the book is an obituary at heart. It grew from a Rolling Stone assignment about the last moon mission, in 1972. After filing a series on the emptiness astronauts felt about life back on Earth, Wolfe spent the next seven years expanding his research into a book. During this time Wolfe, who was at the height of his fame, pursued other projects that betray something between despair and disdain. First he critiqued modern art in 1975’s The Painted Word. A year later, he gave the ‘70s a new nickname with his essay “The ‘Me’ Decade” in New York magazine. In the piece, Wolfe argues that a slice of upwardly mobile proletariats had turned the new age movements of the ‘60s into a “third Great Awakening” centered around a religiosity of self-improvement and actualization. Something was missing from America in the 1970s, Wolfe says, and we were looking for it in ourselves to the point of abstraction. 

The Right Stuff is less a continuation than a course correction. Wolfe produced his best work of nonfiction by refining his unique style and fitting a complicated picture into a frame he’d been building for years. The book doesn’t read as the work of a crank or a nostalgist. Nor is it the work of the energetic smartass Wolfe could sometimes be in his earlier years. His prose, usually as somber as a kazoo playing the “Sabre Dance,” is slim and leaned back (for him, anyway), but still evocative, as when Wolfe recounts how Chuck Yeager broke his ribs on a late-night horse ride, then broke the sound barrier in an experimental airplane and accepted as a reward only his regular salary and a steak dinner at the local dive. A nostalgist might see all test pilots as variations on Yeager, and continue this narrative of the ideal man for a few more chapters. Wolfe doesn’t. 

As Wolfe tells it, test pilots as a group (with the notable exceptions of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, and likely a few others not detailed in the book) tended to be hedonists who earned the nickname “fighter jocks.” They loved to have a few drinks and race their sports cars after any woman who would have them. He describes pilots so hungover they need to take a few gasps of pure oxygen before getting in the cockpit. The Mercury program provides access to an endless buffet of indulgences for men with insatiable lusts for goodies, cookies, and fast machines. If this comes across as harmless fun in the book, it’s largely because the men spend their sober hours waiting for the government to blow them up. Their behavior, and their willingness to die for a Cold War victory, impresses Wolfe, even as it becomes clear the men are essentially test subjects, risking their lives to be “spam in a can,” and doing little actual piloting. He compares them to the “single combat warriors” of old who would battle solo in place of their armies. This rerouting of selfishness is what sets them apart from the “humdrum workadaddy” types Wolfe critiqued in “The ‘Me’ Decade.” The astronauts chased glory for their country, for technological and societal advancement, while their peers channeled their killer instincts into day trading, advertising, or some other corporate concern. “In the rare instances when one of these young men died on the job, it was likely to be from choking on a chunk of Chateaubriand, while otherwise blissfully boiled, in an expense-account restaurant in Manhattan,” Wolfe writes.

The Right Stuff ends on the downbeat of victory. The Gemini and Apollo programs are hiring. America was second to space but will be first to the moon. Wolfe doesn’t write about the lunar missions. He doesn’t need to. Ten years after the moon landing, Neil Armstrong was the astronaut everyone remembered. For all their fighting to be the first and the fastest, the Mercury Seven’s achievements were overshadowed by Armstrong’s small step. The fighter jocks were hollowed out and replaced by scientists. The Seven had the stuff, they put it to use, and then they got put to pasture. At times, the book is breathless about their abilities and achievements, but it ends on a sigh. Maybe having the right stuff pushes a man to public service. Maybe Uncle Sam is the only one who could offer a job dangerous enough to satisfy their destructive egos. But their window closed quickly. Wolfe doesn’t look at Chuck Yeager or Alan Shepard and say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” They make plenty of ‘em, but we don’t have anywhere safe to put them. 

Wolfe wasn’t the only one diagnosing the emptiness of modern life, or describing the sinking feeling that maybe we need to change how we do things. The Right Stuff was published the year Jimmy Carter diagnosed a national “crisis of confidence”—an emptiness lingering after all the excess of the years before, a dose of realism after the pomp of the bicentennial. The Right Stuff book was built on Wolfe’s frustrations about the ‘70s and released at the nation’s nadir. The movie went into development soon after, and it debuted to an America that was insisting on feeling good about itself. 1983 was the midnight hour before “Morning in America.” Ronald Reagan said there was nothing inherently wrong with the American people, who lived in a shining city on a hill. An actor was president. Everyone seemed to be pretending. 

At its best moments, the movie makes this national conflict between fantasy and reality deeply personal. The domestic scenes have a grim air to them as the side effects of having that rarefied stuff start to show in the real world. An early sequence of a minister coming to tell an unnamed pilot’s wife she’s become a widow is edited like a horror scene, with each cut bringing him closer to the door and her closer to having the inevitable news confirmed. Maybe, we think, if he doesn’t get there, she’ll be ok; her husband’s death isn’t real until the words are spoken. This matches the energy of one of the most affecting and efficient passages in the book, when Wolfe describes the loss of control that comes as a widow waits for the messenger to confirm what she already knows. Later, Trudy Cooper, wife of astronaut Gordon Cooper, stands in nearly the same place the widow stood before, with Kaufman’s camera lingering just long enough for us to realize they’ve moved into the dead man’s house. When Trudy, fed up by the strain of living with a man who risks his life for very little money and a whole lot of excitement, leaves Gordo, we see him scramble to get her back so they can keep up appearances with NASA. Once she agrees, he covers his desperation with bravado. Gus Grissom’s confidence erodes as we follow his spaceflight, resulting in the hatch of his capsule blowing open prematurely after splashdown, sinking the equipment and nearly drowning the pilot. His anxiety turns to guilt, and he explodes when Betty Grissom speculates the blown hatch is why they didn’t get to meet the president after the flight. Chuck and Glennis Yeager have a quieter relationship. Their deep, brooding romance culminates in a scene of introspection: When Chuck feels overshadowed by the astronauts, he visits the wreckage of his favorite, long-closed bar. Glennis sees he’s upset, but she is, too, and, like Trudy, she’s also exhausted by all this manly aerial daring-do. “The government spends all kinds of time and money teaching pilots how to be fearless. But they don’t spend a penny teaching you how to be the fearless wife of a test pilot,” she says. The most she might get from the government is a knock at the door and a flyover at Chuck’s funeral.

These somber scenes show a true blind spot of having the right stuff: It makes a man selfish by driving him to only care about the things he can control—fast machines and temporary flings. A relationship takes time and compromise, and the stuff offers little assistance there. When the focus shifts to demonstrations of the stuff’s power, the movie is fun and, occasionally, very strange. The soaring synth-heavy score rises as Yeager passes Mach 1. The spaceflight shots feel cramped. The special effects are gritty and strange, like if the light tunnel from 2001 took a tumble down a dusty hill. And Kaufman uses clever editing to combine newsreels with new footage in a way that looks positively dignified compared to Forrest Gump. 

The Right Stuff can be compared to epics of Old Hollywood or the auteur work of New Hollywood. But there’s another parallel in Stripes and the iconoclastic comedies of the time. A good portion of The Right Stuff’s runtime is devoted to shaggy hangout scenes centered on brash outsiders who manage to make good. Kaufman stretches out a moment in which Alan Shepard, while in the middle of an enema, gets his comeuppance for endlessly repeating a racist “Jose Jimenez” routine. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of American military intelligence. The press corps is played by a comedy troupe. There’s still bad behavior—the Jimenez accent ages poorly, even when Shepard’s jokes are presented negatively; stage booze flows; and as a young woman in a sexy dress slinks into the bar where the Mercury 7 are hanging out, she whispers “five down, two to go”—but the loose fun of the comedy scenes and the loud, rumbling danger of the flight scenes balance to make the men seem, if not like idols, then at least like tolerable jocks. They’re the kind who might be obnoxious in the hallway, but who would never pick on a bookworm just to be mean. As with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in Stripes, we’re supposed to root for these lovable goofballs and, by extension, the country they represent. In Yeager’s last scene, we’re told, explicitly, who it is we’re watching. The pilot hops in a new jet the way a teenager borrows the family car. He takes it as high as it can go. It flames out. He crashes. Soon, the rescuers are on their way to the wreckage. “Is that a man?” one says. “You’re damn right it is,” his partner replies. 

NASA made the Mercury Seven men into a myth; Wolfe made them into (slightly flawed) idols; and Kaufman makes them the prototypes of all the insouciant heroes of the Reagan era, who reinforce the American status quo while still breaking every rule. 

“It’s incredible what passes for heroism these days,” Roger Sterling tells Don Draper in a season two episode of Mad Men. They’re discussing the ticker tape parade for John Glenn after his orbit of the earth, which Roger compares to driving around the block three times. “I think he’s a winner,” Don says. “Square jaw, false modesty. It’s like he just took off his letterman jacket.” 

The TV version of The Right Stuff takes this sentiment and stretches it to 10 one-hour episodes. The series dispenses with Yeager and attempts to dive deep into the lives of the Mercury Seven and those around them, with a particular focus on the friction between All-American Glenn and “Smilin’ Al” Shepard. Ultimately, though, it skims along the surface, bouncing from cliche to cliche. Glenn is a country square who briefly becomes one of the guys when he takes a slug of Johnnie Walker and shares a war story. Shepard philanders and drinks and excuses his hedonism as the natural release for a man living on the brink of death. The five other astronauts are twisted silhouettes of masculinity. Cooper is broken by the pleasures Shepard pursues. Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton are reduced to sub-lingual oafs until they need to show an understanding of aeronautics or leadership. The others drift in and out, on hand to clink glasses or hold someone back in a fight. We get a few signs of something new. We learn Trudy Cooper was an accomplished pilot herself. The NASA civilians are shown as dedicated civil servants instead of bumbling clowns. The friendly-but-toxic pairing between the astronauts and the press (who Wolfe depicted as a “Victorian gent”) is given more space. 

At times, it seems like there’s a reckoning coming here. The Right Stuff in previous forms has a strange relationship with masculinity, its uses, and its place in society. The decision to acknowledge this in the TV series might seem like progress, if it went anywhere. By the end, Shepard goes smiling into space, leaving his recently uncovered infidelities behind. Trudy flies away with her daughter. And the NASA men tug at their skinny ties and get ready to deliver another monologue about America. Next stop, the moon. 

Wolfe loved the astronauts because they could’ve become Don Draper but didn’t. Kaufman saw them as brave goofs. The show sees both points, and figures that by leaving it all out there, we’ll come to our own conclusions. But it’s hard to credit the fleeting focus on Trudy Cooper as more than obligatory when we’ve already seen stories about NASA that don’t center on the men of the space program, from The Astronauts Wives Club to the excellent Hidden Figures. After nearly two decades of white male antiheroes on TV, to mine malfeasance without giving some sign of consequences comes off as encouragement, or, at least, complicity.

Real life doesn’t always offer consequences that fit their actions. That’s one reason why we watch filmed dramatizations of real events. It’s why we pick up a nonfiction bestseller instead of a government report. It’s why we make sense out of real life by flattening it into myths and fables, and why they keep changing with us. And it’s why, if a story can’t tell us anything new, we might need to stop telling it for a while.