My Girlfriend and I watched episode 1 of a new Dutch TV drama series the other night, called "Vliegende Hollanders" (Flying Dutchmen) about the start of the KLM in 1919 and the love-hate relationship that KLM-founder Albert Plesman had with Anthony Fokker. It looked really good. Especially for a Dutch series, it had busloads of beautiful CGI and well-crafted sets. Only things I found a little less than good were the language which was way too modern sounding, and the weird choice of music in a dance scene (in 1919) where they used much too modern sounding music and the people actually danced like it was 1999. Not contemporary and very anachronistic. I really don't mind modern scores over period dramas but the music in the drama should be correct. But for the rest, I liked the first episode and I really liked that a Dutch film company took the effort to tell a little told Dutch aviation story.
In the United States, there once was a creative film industry with interesting productions and TV series. Nowadays, it is all caped and masked superheroes and remakes of classic movies that don't deserve a modern remake because the originals were just damn good in their own right.
Like Philip Kauffman's The Right Stuff (1983).
The three-hour long movie showed us the beginning of rocket flight with the Bell X-1, the plane that broke the sound barrier, briefly made Chuck Yeager the hero of the day and moved on to tell the story of the Original Seven, the first American Astronauts. The movie focused on the effort. The astronaut group and its dynamics. But mainly on the effort as a whole. The story of The Space Race.
The actors were very well cast. Ed Harris really was John Glenn. Dennis Quaid and Pamela Reed were excellent as Gordo and Trudy Cooper. Scott Glenn depicted Alan Shepard very well. And all of them also looked a lot like the people they portrayed.
Nevertheless, the film was also flawed. For instance, there weren't that many Germans involved in making the Mercury capsule. Also, Jack Ridley wasn't alive anymore to give Yeager one of his Beemans when Yeager made his F-104 zoom flight and got in a spin. And maybe even more important, the Liberty Bell splashdown was told in a way that could suggest Gus actually did blow the hatch (he didn't. It has been proven.) But what made the original so good in spite of all its flaws? The drive and the focus on the actual story. No repeats of situations. Suggestion instead of explicit visual clues. And great visual effects. I won't mention Bill Conti's hastily composed and pompous soundtrack of which half was
stolen borrowed from Tchaikovsky. Oh. Now I actually did mention it. (-;
Now in this remake-era, Disney+ has made a daring move. An actual remake of The Right Stuff. Apparently approved by Tom Wolfe himself, just a few months before his death. The story would be remade into a high-level of production TV series. Great. Fantastic, perhaps. The story is legendary and there is so much more to tell than just what the movie had time for. So a series version of the story sounded great. But now, what gets the main focus? The wrong stuff. Especially for someone who knows the story by heart and is a bit of a space buff as well.
First, let me tell you what I do like about the series up til now. The pacing is good. The editing up til now is modern yet classic enough to be timeless. But the storytelling is far from good. It just is plain bad. Cheap. Let me explain.
Now, being a filmmaker myself, I know the importance of having to condense a story when making a film adaptation of a book. I know that one has to skip or combine people and situations to make stories more accessible or comprehensible. And also, you have to make the story accessible to people that don't know a lot about spaceflight history. So you have to write stuff in that is more or less general drama-inducing stuff. Like relations between people. Intrigues and hidden agendas always work well in a drama. But you can also exaggerate things way too much.
Tom Wolfe's book was about "The Right Stuff". What made these flying men what they were. How they put that to use in the space program. How they trained, how they behaved among themselves, how they were annoying test pilots. Tom Wolfe's book was about how members of the unsung Brotherhood of Fearless Test Pilots tried and climbed to the Top of the Pyramid to be recruited for Project Mercury. Tom Wolfe's book was about how the women of those fearless pilots lived in fear every day, with the real possibility their man wouldn't come back alive from his job. The struggle the families had adapting to the invasive media, with married life and the temptations outside of it.
Yes, the men were adulterous. But until now, in this series, it's like all they appear to do. So unnecessary. They screw almost every girl they meet like hormone-driven teenagers. This is not subtle in any way. You could also leave that to the viewer's suggestion. In one of the first scenes Shepard has a one-night stand and prepares to leave. That would have been enough. And anyway, it is not needed in the extent it is used now to tell the story of what The Right Stuff originally was about: Project Mercury. The Original Seven almost start to look like incapable of anything else but screwing girls and acting like idiots with a glass of whiskey in their hands. I only have seen Gordo Cooper flying an F-104 early in the first episode but none of the other six have been shown flying. They were pilots, dammit!
Instead of showing more of the space effort, they aparently decided to put the
focus on the astronaut's adulterous escapades, their rivalries (which
there definitely were, but not in the extent shown in the series so far)
and lots of other excessive behaviour as well. The drinkin' and flyin' and flyin' and f*ckin' all was part of Tom Wolfe's book. But that wasn't the main focus. It wasn't what the story was about.
Glenn was an ascete in a sea of car crazy, girl humping, drinkin' and flyin' brotherhood. He really was. And Glenn only was friends with Scott Carpenter. (who hardly has a role in the series, Renée, his wife has had more lines than he has!) The rest of the Original Seven found Glenn just off-beat and soon realised he wasn't one of the jockey's like they were. Glenn did try to talk some sense into the other six about their promiscuous behaviour, with no success, I presume. They had their 'seances' about stuff like that. The other six might have disliked Glenn a little more after that. But Glenn and Shepard weren't that hateful to eachother. Not even behind the scenes. They knew where to draw the line. They were military officers. Professionals. They knew they had to work together. In this series, there is a lot of intrigue and suspicion and scheming going on. BUT. THIS. STORY. IS. SUPPOSED. TO. BE. ABOUT. SPACEFLIGHT.
The damaged relationship of Trudy and Gordo Cooper on thr other hand, is done all right and is better than I expected. The short scenes on this subject in the original film were good because of what you could read inbetween the lines. in the TV-series they're good because of the well-played interactions between the two actors. You can feel their distance, their grief and pain, their troubles with trying to mend their marriage, the misunderstandings abd struggles with their communications. Their relationship is damaged for good but they keep on trying. I liked that bit. It is cringey, sad and moving. You feel for both of them. While the rest just stays flat characters.
BUT AGAIN: THIS. STORY. IS. SUPPOSED. TO. BE. ABOUT. SPACEFLIGHT.
Now for a non space-buff this might be all very well. It looks great and it gives a sense of how it might have been. Mad Men in space. Except it wasn't. Far From it. With the focus on the relationships and the dramas, what I really miss is the base, the origins and the tone of Tom Wolfe's story. The film says it is based on the book. I don't see that anywhere. I don't feel the urgency of the Mercury project, not even in the background. In the book you read about the fear of the Soviets being first with a man in space. In the book you can read about the influence the astronauts wanted to have on the design, but didn't. How each one of them got a specialty to deal with during the project. (Glenn was working on the cockpit interior, Cooper studied the Redstone to name just two), the details of their training.
Yes, the MASTIFF scene was a nice touch and nicely done too, but there was so much more. The writers now made it look like the pilots just were chosen after the (very short mentioned) Lovelace trials, and now they could just party on until it was time to be launched. These men wanted to fly. They demanded jet planes to fly. They trained extensively in capsule mockups long before the prototype arrives at Hangar S. (which is just a hangar with an S on it in the series, not the significant place it actually was.)
It now feels like the writers didn't want to include anything which made the film and the book so great and significant and just create a badly written soap in the early sixties. BUT. THIS. STORY. IS. SUPPOSED. TO. BE. ABOUT. SPACEFLIGHT.
Mistakes are piling up. And I am not even talking about uniforms or details like that. It's the historical facts they get wrong that grind my gears. years in which things happened. The Redstone test was long after the three astronauts were chosen for the first three flights, and no one, not even a german was about to fire bullets in the rocket. That is thesilliest thing they wrote into the series. Furthermore, Alan Shepard's crippling Menière's disease started after Mercury, not before. Certainly not like this, because he would've been grounded right away. Tinnitus and Menière are no jokes in a high-risk environment. Shepard also knew that and he wouldn't take that risk. Glenn never was the solo player and schemer he is portrayed as. He was too much of a devout christian for that. In the 1983 movie it was Grissom that was portrayed very wrong as the hatch blower, now it apparently is Glenn who we have to hate. Why bring this hero down? Flying legend Jerrie Cobb meeting up with Trudy Cooper to ask her to let Gordo promote her case of wanting to become an astronaut? And then ask Trudy to - almost literally - become one of the Mercury Thirteen?! Give me a break! That never happened! Why put this utter nonsense like that in this series? There are so many good (auto)biographies written about the Original Seven and their wives to use as a genuine source of information. They just made up stories to create a basic (and badly written) soap opera out of this real story. AND. THIS. STORY. WAS. SUPPOSED. TO. BE. ABOUT. SPACEFLIGHT!
The writers of this series have royally screwed the pooch. They should have used a different title just to avoid any comparison with that magnificent book and great (albeit flawed) movie. This series really is The Wrong Stuff. Why can't they make a decent series about this subject? It is as if the real events aren't exciting enough for hollywood writers, so they invent intrigues and make up stories and meet-ups between persons that never met to create more over-the-top-drama. The Right Stuff wasn't that exaggerated. From the Earth to the Moon, in my opinion the last great effort to create a real historically correct spaceflight series, is 22 years old now - and has not yet been equalled, let alone improved.
--PK [edited 2020-11-03]