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‘The Real Right Stuff’ (review)

Executive Produced by Tom Jennings, Simon Raikes
Produced by David Tillman, Chris Morcom
Directed by Tom Jennings


“Eyes of wonder.” That’s how Tom Jennings, the award-winning producer and director of the upcoming documentary The Real Right Stuff, describes children’s continuing fascination with space. “Our early youth goes back to the notion of great adventure, fairy tales, looking up at the stars,” Jennings explained.

Of course, all children who grew up prior to the great space race of the 1960s only knew these adventures in books of fantasy, magazines, and films – that is, until Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Air Force pilot and cosmonaut, became the first human in space on April 12, 1961.

Gagarin’s successful flight began a cold war competition between the US and the Soviet Union space programs that wouldn’t end until Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on the moon in July of 1969.

A lot happened between Gagarin’s and Armstrong’s missions. Fear, heartbreak, science, politics, and triumph paved the way to those famous first steps on July 21, 1969.

But before we could “walk” we had to learn to crawl, and that’s where The Real Right Stuff begins.

The Real Right Stuff tells the story of the Mercury Seven, the first seven American test pilots chosen to become star voyagers (astronauts) for the new US Space program known as NASA. It chronicles the first American flights into space and what went into the choices made to get them there. The documentary also serves as an excellent companion piece to the Disney Plus dramatic series The Right Stuff that is based on the Tom Wolfe book by the same name.

The dramatic series The Right Stuff marks the second time Wolfe’s book has been adapted for the screen. It was also made into an excellent feature film back in 1983 by Phillip Kaufman. Although the new series, and ‘83 feature, focus on different aspects of Wolfe’s brilliant book, both are better served by Jennings’ wonderful new documentary The Real Right Stuff.

Tom Jennings, affectionately known as the “lost tapes guy” for his many acclaimed unmasking documentaries that have ranged in topics from Malcom X to JFK, scored a new coup upon discovering Tom Wolfe’s original interview with Rene Carpenter, wife of Scott Carpenter (the pilot of Aurora 7 for the Mercury program). The interview delivers a wealth of information in newly uncovered, never-before-heard recordings, not used in any previous NASA documentary.

For space buffs this is gold, or as Jennings put it, “Those are the moments we live for!” Jennings and his research team relied heavily on archives they found in local television stations of all places. He explained that once a piece was cut together for broadcast, out of thirty minutes of footage there were usually twenty-seven plus minutes left to discover.

And what discoveries, indeed.

Life magazine paid the original Mercury Seven astronauts for the rights to their life stories from selection all the way to space flight.

Along the way they took endless photographs and gave exclusive footage of private moments. With so much existing “official” archived footage it is truly amazing Jennings was able to offer a new take on such a well-documented story. But that’s not all Jennings was able to show. In one of the seemingly sillier bits of footage, we see a newly-restored John Glenn home movie showing the astronaut pull into his driveway, pat his dog on the head, give his kids awkward hugs, and double back to kiss his wife Annie who is lounging in the front yard sipping a drink. In this obviously staged footage, Jennings is able to juxtapose what the world was shown versus the danger these seven brave men were actually up against.

Jennings explains, “Juxtaposition is definitely a thought pattern that goes through our heads, here’s what everyone is seeing, here’s what’s really going on behind the scenes.”

One of the most remarkable things The Real Right Stuff provides is by far one of the best takes on Gus Grissom’s loss of his Mercury capsule.

After its initial safe splashdown, Liberty Bell 7’s capsule door was unexpectedly blown open, hopelessly flooding it with ocean water. Although Grissom was able to safely exit the capsule before it sank, the images culled, in some cases from actual Coast Guard footage, show just how much danger he was really in. The film from the rescue itself shows how long the hapless Grissom spent in the water while the helicopter unsuccessfully attempted to rescue the sinking capsule. With all the dangers surrounding space flight, it’s amazing to see how the flight really isn’t over until it’s over. It also puts into perspective how not all accidents occur during flight itself. This was a hard lesson the world would learn all too well when Grissom perished six years later during a routine test for Apollo 1 while it was still on the launchpad.

“Space travel is a given now…” Jennings explained, illustrating the difference between how common it has become to the groundbreaking newness of the time, but back then it was like “Icarus…for the common good.”

Describing the original Mercury Seven astronauts as “Icarus” is perhaps the most fitting possible description for these brave, and slightly crazy, men. They did their best to soar before their wings melted in the sun and the world is better because they did. Pioneers like the Mercury Seven are the reasons we take flights like the recent successful Space X missions for granted. The only notable difference being the space programs of today are a lot more diverse than they were in the early days of NASA, making that an exciting comparison proving having “the right stuff” isn’t exclusively for white males.

The Real Right Stuff is perhaps one of the best documentaries about the early space program ever made. It manages to cater to extreme space buffs and complete novices at the same time. It is a seamless companion to The Right Stuff Disney+ TV series and will most likely be shown in schools for many years to come. I highly recommend it.

The Real Right Stuff from National Geographic
premieres on Disney+ on Friday, November 20, 2020.

Fred Shahadi is an award-winning filmmaker and playwright living in Los Angeles. He is the author of
Shoot the Moon, an alternate history conspiracy novel best described as ‘Apollo 13 meets JFK.’


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