Do We Need A Right Stuff Redux?

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In 2015, after George Lucas had sold the Star Wars franchise, he got in a little hot water for calling Disney, the company who bought it, “white slavers.” I got the joke because I recalled the even darker description a friend of mine who worked at Disney said some company insiders used: Mousewitz. That Disney has a rapacious relationship with commercial sensibilities is evidently well understood in the entertainment industry.

In that context, comes a new project this fall from Disney and Nat Geo that remakes the 1983 movie The Right Stuff into an eight-part television series. With eight episodes of bandwidth and four decades of computer graphics progress at hand, I can imagine binary potential: It will be breathtakingly fabulous or a groaning flop. The Disney promo mill describes it as “a clear-eyed, non-nostalgic look at the lives of these ambitious astronauts and their families, who became instant celebrities in a competition that would either kill them or make them immortal.”

I get just a flicker of an overhype warning light on that. It goes full red with the rest of it: “At the heart of the historic drama populated by deeply human characters are two men who become icons—Glenn and Shepard—as they jockey to be the first man in space. The entire program is nearly brought to its knees by their intense rivalry.”

Maybe I’m suffering from amnesia, but I don’t recall that from actual events nor in Tom Wolfe’s telling of the story in the bestselling 1979 book. When the film appeared in 1983, it took certain liberties with Wolfe’s story, but hewed well enough to the idea of it to be well received and win four Academy Awards for technical excellence. The movie has aged well. If you read the book and watch it today with other than an eye as jaundiced as mine can be, the ethos of the book is visible. The original Right Stuff movie went far enough, but not too far.

When Tom Wolfe died in 2018, I reread the book and realized I’d forgotten it was neither documentary nor history. One review called it a novel, but it’s not that, either. As a so-called “new journalist,” Wolfe had built the story on one premise: To explain what makes a person willing to sit atop a column of explosive propellant and have someone light the fuse. The astronauts and pilots Wolfe interviewed could not articulate this nor could Wolfe commit to even his unrestrained prose that curious but powerful way pilots embed their egos in their ability to manipulate the controls of an airplane.

And how failing to do so skillfully—screwing the pooch, you’ll recall—was an unspoken, profound failing, but a failing nonetheless. As the astronauts and pilots were flustered for a descriptor, Wolfe surrendered in their behalf by calling the indescribable quality, “the right stuff.” You knew it when you saw it even if you couldn’t explain it.

What made The Right Stuff the story it was was Wolfe’s unique talent in adhering to that underlying premise. How did these guys handle the risk, the fear and great unknowns of edge-of-progress flight? The rockets and associated technology were bit players. It was the men Wolfe focused on.

Both the book and the movie, but especially the book, were agreeably exaggerated. If you cringed at the excess, it wasn’t much because it was so obviously built on a transparent grasp of the pilot psyche. Wolfe and the astronauts he interviewed understood the public’s need for heroes–single combat warriors struggling to the top of the ziggurat, as Wolfe described it. They knew the public and even some at NASA went wide-eyed and rapt at their aw-shucks description of hanging it out on the edge of in some never-before-tried hurtling machine. And they also understood this for the utter confection it was, but one they could manipulate in their own narrow favor– the “halo effect,” as Wolfe called it. Life Magazine practically made an independent industry of the Mercury 7.

In his research, Wolfe heard a lot of funny there-I-was stories that are as important to flying as knowing pitch from roll. And the book has a lot of that, including the epic tale of Pete Conrad and the enema bag: “The next thing the people in the administrative office knew, a small but enraged young man was storming into the office of General Schwichtenberg himself, waving a great flaccid flamingo-pink enema bag and hose like some sort of obese whip. As he waved it, it gurgled.”  

Good luck getting that into a film and more yet finding an actor who can pull it off. Or is it more likely it will fall out of the screenplay, meaning the new film borrows the name of the book but is something else entirely? But that was The Right Stuff. Wolfe’s version wasn’t a Project Mercury history, it was an extended character study animated by human foibles, faults and fallacies. The very title conveys something unique about Wolfe’s treatment of the subject. I wonder if the original Right Stuff still resonates enough with audiences who don’t read much to still be a market touchpoint. Otherwise, Disney and Nat Geo may just be borrowing a name.

I guess we’ll find out in October.

7500

While I’m doing my Saturday morning aviation movie critic duties, worth mentioning is a new film released by Amazon for its Prime streaming customers. It’s called 7500—for the hijack transponder code—and was actually made a year ago, but just made available in June. Here’s the trailer.

The story line concerns a Berlin-to-Paris flight hijacked by Muslim extremists bent on crashing it intentionally. It’s the story of the 9/11 hijackings writ small and it revealed to me that I still feel trauma over that event, almost 20 years on. I think many of us do.

It’s a German production filmed entirely in the cockpit of what I take to be an Airbus. The visuals are excellent and so is the interplay between the pilots, ground crew and flight attendants as the movie begins. Confining the story to the cockpit gives the movie a tense claustrophobia I found effective but difficult to endure. I wanted to inch away from the television until my back was against the wall behind the couch. I was also cheering the Federal Flight Deck Officer program.

While 7500 is well crafted, it’s a study in, well I don’t know what it’s a study in. It doesn’t have a happy ending by any means. I have no idea why anyone thought this story needed reprising, other than it heaps more steaming awfulness onto an already sufficiently awful year.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. I nominate Paul Bertorelli for the first Ernie Gann Writer’s Award (as soon as the award can be established).

    Like Gann, Paul takes an event or story, and is able to TELL the story succinctly, but is able to draw so much more out of it Gann was able to tell the story of flying the DC-2–but better yet, the story of the men who flew them–right down to their personalities. There is a term for that style of writing–GESTALT–“the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.”

    Gann told stories about wartime flying in Fate is the Hunter and other books. His riveting story about flying up the fjord to “Blue West One” in Greenland is an example. It inspired me to turn off the avionics on the way to Greenland on my first Atlantic crossing in a Caravan, and revert to ONC charts. When my shocked co-pilot asked why I was doing that, I asked if he had ever read Fate is the Hunter–in my best Clint Eastwood voice, I asked Gann’s question–“Can YOU find the right fjord? Well CAN YOU, punk?”

    Tom Wolfe told similar stories of men and machines and the Space Race in Right Stuff. Paul’s commentaries come from the same mold.

    Ever considered writing an aviation book, Paul?

  2. Nice quip Paul — my suggestion is to accept these deserved accolades and keep on doin’ what yer doin’ — writing insightful and entertaining material about aviation for those who truly live and love aviation. Really enjoy your video segments as well! Stay safe down there in Florida-land.

  3. I third the nomination. I think what makes his writing very special is that you get to know the man through his words. Paul has shared his own challenges and adventures – his broken foot from skydiving; the escape from a Florida storm; an emotional journey through Northern France and many more. We learn from him but also about him. Self-effacing, curmudgeonly, witty, instructive and a master of statistics. The man we’d all like to share a beer with. Cheers, Paul!

  4. BTW, I’d like to see a remake of “The wrong stuff” – the production which borrowed (and inverted) the title and revealed that ex-military fighter jocks were responsible for several civil hull losses, through a failure to manage a crew. I was told by an aviation ergonomist that this piece inspired the development of CRM. Perhaps remake could be intercut with stellar examples of CRM averting disasters, such as the four engine-out in a 747 over Jakarta.

  5. I was at Edwards AFB when the Edwards video segments for the movie were made. They actually repainted FiFi to look like the JTB-29A that dropped the X-1. A full sized fiberglass model of the X-1 completed the mockup for the movie and looked pretty darned real. Ironically, the pair were parked at what was then known as South Base … not far from the pit where the real X-1 was lowered to enable loading it onto the Mothership in 1947.

    Not widely known, Chuck Yeager was hired as a consultant to the movie. It was his SOP to ask for something more than money when he’d do that. For the movie, he asked for a cameo role. If you watch very closely, HE is the bartender at Poncho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club. That’s the place where he was riding his horse at night and injured himself when the horse ran through a closed gate. Between the movie and the series of AC Delco commercials he made, his name became a house hold word. Prior to that, he was mostly known only in aviation circles. Ironic that both Chuck Yeager and Bob Cardenas (pilot of the B-29 that dropped the X-1) are still with us 73 years after they successfully broke the sound barrier on Oct 14, 1947.

    I broke the movie down into two parts … the early aviation days at Edwards and the subsequent competition for astronaut selection and what happened thereafter. The parts showcasing Edwards were fairly accurate. In those days, Edwards was the wild west of flight test.

  6. My two favorite writers of my two favorite subjects are Paul (aviation) and Dan Neil (WSJ’s car guy).What they do with words is amazing (always make me chuckle and smile)…..I can’t wait to read anything these two guys write…just behind them are Bill Cox for adventure, and for content/clarity Isabel Goyer and Marc Cook.
    But to the point….I’m voting for Paul B as this generations Ernie Gann Writer’s Award!

  7. I read and saw “The Right Stuff” when they were first published/released. If you had asked me to remember what the book and movie were about I would have said Chuck Yeager. I thought that Wolfe felt Yeager embodied the “Right Stuff” and wasn’t quite bureaucratic enough to be interested in joining the Astronaut corps at the time.

    And I also don’t think that book could find a major publisher or the movie a production studio at the current time. As Mel Brookes recently said about Blazing Saddles “I could never make that movie today”.

    So will be interested to see what Disney/Nat Geo will do with the story.

  8. I think we should all be careful about saying nice things about Paul. We are going to give him a big head. 😉

    This is like the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” Sorry–just a waste of time. Maybe they should do Gone with the Wind with a slant from current events.

    I do wonder if they’ll include the local girls at the Cape. Wolfe did a nice job on bringing that up but not going too deep.

    Best

    Vince Massimini
    Kentmorr Airpark MD (3W3)

  9. I add my vote to Paul getting a yet future award named for one of the best authors I’ve ever read. Gann’s Fate and Band of Brothers inspired me as a kid to want to be a pilot.

    I have less faith then Paul in the notion that Disney can and will do right by the original book/movie. It is sad to me that studios cannot work with new ideas, but have to rehash old ones hoping to squeeze more green from it till it dies. The original movie was a great watch and it did capture the time and moment of man’s first entry into space, but we have come so much further today…why not accent today instead of looking always back.

    On a different note I personally love that humanity has gone from “The Right Stuff” needed to get into space to almost anyone can go (eventually). I wonder what the Mercury Seven would say or think if they were told 60 years later the US is on the brink of sending tourists into Space and the main vehicle to do it will be reusable.

    lastly, speaking of Gann, I devoured fate is the Hunter (may now read it again) and as others said, Gann’s narrative of the story really drew you into being right there. The lit match story is one I remind myself today when I start to get rattled. When Hollywood made a movie of it with John Wayne I thought, I got to watch that one…OMG it was horrible. A prime example of how “Based On” really means “We ripped the original to shreds and what we pieced together is crap”.

    Maybe it is impossible, but better that Disney tried to (re)make the movie/book of Fate and keep close to the original, because there could be so much to pull from a movie that in a way it would be a better variation on “The Right Stuff” then rinse and repeat the same story already done well. Given how much depth is in the book, Disney could pull an 8 episode series that follow the life of the pilot. I’d love to watch the scene where he barely misses the Taj Mahal; with today’s CGI it would be a hoot.

  10. ‘ I wonder what the Mercury Seven would say or think if they were told 60 years later the US is on the brink of sending tourists into Space and the main vehicle to do it will be reusable.’

    No doubt to me they would say, finally! what took so long? 60 damn years? Good grief…

    Saw the film 7500 on Prime, whew. Had quality headset on and you know the fidelity and surround-sound feel you get from them, was it intense. Not to say too much but the audio from the desire to enter the flight deck was brilliantly unnerving. Very well done.

  11. It is incredible how Tom Wolfe has been dropped and derided in some places — his later books were sometimes not as flowing as when he was in his pomp but dealt with things like racism and sexism head like the way Dickens dealt with poverty and class in Oliver Twist.
    For many aviation enthusiasts, the aircraft parts of A Man In Full, are very funny, once they stop wincing.
    Even if they never enter the cockpit…