The Space Race Without Heroes – Retelling The Right Stuff

The late second temple Jewish general and historian known to us as Flavius Josephus is one of the most interesting characters of his society and time in history, not so important as Jesus or as influential as Paul, but perhaps just as fascinating in his own way. After all, his very survival of a suicide pact at the end of the Jewish War and his subsequent patronage by the Flavian dynasty makes for an interesting story in itself, even if he had not sat down to write about his times, and the history of his peoples.

I got around to reading Josephus just over a decade ago, and the thing that really struck me when reading The Jewish Antiquities is that it is a retelling of the Bible with one major omission: God.

Today on Disney +, I watched the first two episodes of the series retelling Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the dramatic history he wrote 40 years ago about the origins of the space race and the Mercury astronauts, and it struck me that the script writers have created a story without a hero.

I was 16 when I read The Right Stuff, and I guess you could tell then, a couple of years before Bonfire of the Vanities took the world by storm that Tom Wolfe was a novelist in a journalist’s body, just waiting to burst out. Kauffman’s film adaption of the book, which I saw within a year of reading the book (when it premiered on TV), was epic big event cinema for the mid 1980s, and faithful, in its own way, to the book, whilst retelling it through a much more spectacular medium.

But what Kauffman and Wolfe both had in their version of the space race story was a hero, straddling the sky and overshadowing all other characters, a protagonist whom all others measured themselves against, and each in their own way was found to be lacking.

That was depicted most graphically in the climatic scene of the movie version of The Right Stuff, where the Mercury astronauts are taken to a Texas celebration in their honour by Vice President Johnson. There, a fan dancer gyrates and turns on stage, whilst the scene cuts away to where the real hero, test pilot Chuck Yeager is trying to push a modified F104 Starfighter to an altitude record, before he spins out of control and finally ejects. Gordo Cooper (played very aptly by Dennis Quaid as brash and shallow), one of the Mercury 7, is asked by a journalist who is the best pilot he ever met, and fumbles as he remembers Yeager and tries to name him, before giving up and just claiming he himself is the best.

Of course, the audience knows the truth, as Yeager marches triumphantly out of the wreckage of his plane, helmet under one arm and parachute under the other. He might not have the fame, nor have reached the stars, but he has conquered adversity, and shown himself to be the true hero.

The problem with the National Geographic series Disney is now streaming is that it picks up the story halfway through. The Right Stuff is not so much about the Mercury 7, as it is about the culture of the pioneer test pilots who rode their rocket planes and early jets through the late 1940s and early 1950s over the high desert, wrestling them through the sound barrier and frequently cratering into that desert. Most of the Mercury 7 astronauts hated The Right Stuff when it was released, as it was a fly on the wall depiction of that era, and portrayed them more as flawed but acceptable supporting characters in a much more epic story.

Starting the story with the selection of the astronauts and focusing on their flaws and struggles, particularly those of Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, and Gordo Cooper, is to present a story where there are no real heroes, no figures to admire and respect. Instead, we see them as the imposters that they may have seen themselves, masquerading as great American heroes.

Don’t get me wrong – I will be watching the entire series, and I do have respect for the men who can fly those monsters across the sky and into space. But this is not epic storytelling the way that Wolfe and Kaufmann produced when they made The Right Stuff the story that we know and love. For that, you need epic heroes, not imposters.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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