It is a subject that seems endlessly convincing no matter how much information we ingest about Project Mercury.
Initiated in 1958 by Nasa and completed in 1963, it was the first man-in-space program in the United States.
There is now a new documentary called The Real Right Stuff that goes back to the beginning of the space race era to tell the amazing true tale of the first astronauts of the country, the original Mercury 7.
The feature film is a riveting experience, directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings (best known for Apollo: Missions To The Moon and Challenger Disaster: Missing Tapes), a companion piece to the newly released scripted series The Right Stuff on Disney+.
Ohio native Jennings, 59, claims that the primary explanation is the material used – taken from hundreds of hours of archival film and radio broadcasts, interviews, home videos and other unique and unparalleled footage.
Jennings says, “What we’re trying to do with this kind of film is almost create a time machine so viewers can get a glimpse of what it was like to be alive when all this was happening,”
Nasa has preserved it well, he says, although the footage is from more than six decades ago.
“They have tens of thousands of photographs, not to mention 1,000 hours of footage, so it’s a wonderful way to start to tell this story,” he says.
“In addition, there was so much news at the time, both national and local – and we’re always trying to find local footage because it’s less familiar to most viewers,” he said.
So we’re very grateful to have been able to find so many beautiful pictures and simple tones to tell the story like a motion picture, even though it’s all true.
“And that’s always our goal, that this kind of documentary storytelling feels like a movie – but you actually learn something about yourself along the way.”
The film, with no talking heads, is made in a very unique documentary style. It’s a self-contained story instead.
Jennings says, “We look at all the source material as a narrative thread and follow something called ‘the hero’s journey,’ a motif that’s in a lot of stories,”
It is used to follow the hero in several motion pictures as he travels into the unknown, defeats the dragon, and finally returns home where the hero is greeted. And we’re applying that to archival footage, and, thankfully, it works very well, because those stories have all those elements.
At the time, the cult-like celebrity that existed not only around the astronauts but also around their families was unusual.
In fact, Life magazine covered the early days of the program with free access for astronauts – and even had Mercury 7 on its cover.
And The Real Right Stuff includes unseen and rare photographs, including behind-the-scenes shots from the famous Life magazine issue that provided an insight into the private lives of the astronauts: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Donald Slayton, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Scott Carpenter.
Jennings says they discovered a lot of fantastic interviews with Tom Wolfe, the American novelist who wrote The Right Stuff in 1979, about the public response to the Mercury 7 (the book that became the 1983 film and current episodic series starring Patrick J. Adams).
“It’s easy to forget how much a nation – the United States – needed heroes at that time.easy “It’s to forget how much at that time a nation – the United States – needed heroes.
“We had this space race going on, they [the Soviet Union]were ahead of us, it was in this era of bizarre science fiction,”We had this space race going on, they [the Soviet Union]were ahead of us, in this era of bizarre science fiction.
You know, a few years ago, you had Sputnik, which scared everyone in the world that the Soviets were going to conquer the earth with this satellite in some way.
“Life magazine certainly wanted to portray them – the astronauts and their families and their children – as the best and the brightest that the United States had to offer, even though, as we show, they were the best and the brightest, but they also had their faults and foibles, especially when they had to deal with fame and celebrity.”
It’s three days after polls close for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, when the Zoom call with Jennings takes place, and a day before it is revealed that Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump.
It is also a time of tremendous change in American life, with a nation divided politically.