The Real Right Stuff is a solid, impressively constructed documentary, but it’s a drier account of a great American achievement than the scripted series it was released as a companion piece to.
The irony of The Real Right Stuff, a two-hour NatGeo documentary that debuted on Disney+ today to coincide with the finale of The Right Stuff, is that it’s a less interesting and energetic examination of the early days of the Space Race than the show it’s a factual companion piece to.
This, one assumes, was not the intended effect. A documentary is, obviously, a very different proposition from a scripted series, designed to appeal in different ways, but you’d imagine it being a better, truer source of the facts. Judging by The Real Right Stuff itself, the accompanying series put across enough accurate detail and captured the national temperature well enough that it works as a sober accounting of the facts as well as a drama. This film only has the former to rely on and feels much drier by comparison.
The story of the first Americans in space is an endlessly fascinating one, as is any true story involving space exploration in general, but The Real Right Stuff is rote as a documentary. It’s built around hundreds of hours of archival film, radio broadcasts, interviews, and other materials from the time, a lot of it never seen before, which is obviously a hook on its own. But it’s assembled in a standard, functional way, and the added benefit of a Hans Zimmer score – recorded remotely during the pandemic – does little to imbue the film with the intended gravitas.
There’s some good stuff here on the formation of NASA itself, and the national hysteria that surrounded the Mercury 7 astronauts although that, too, was put across more engagingly in the show. The involvement of Tom Wolfe, upon whose same-titled book The Right Stuff was based, is also nice, but not enough. The same can be said of newly digitized home movies from John Glenn and touched-up photographs from behind the scenes, thanks in large part to NASA’s arrangement with LIFE Magazine.
The construction of The Real Right Stuff, its weaving together of original archival materials, is what’s really noteworthy about it, but that stuff is also designed to be seamless, so the audience doesn’t notice it. What’s left is a fairly dry account of a truly important achievement in American history. The excitement surrounding space exploration endures, but this film probably encourages us to keep looking forward to where we’re going rather than back to how we got here.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.