(CNN)Expanded into an eight-hour series, “The Right Stuff” doesn’t feel the need for speed. What it loses in momentum, however, this Disney+ series gains in its characterizations, offering a satisfying voyage back into the stories of the men at the center of the Mercury 7 space program, as well as the women that loved and/or endured them.
Unlike the 1983 movie adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book — which deftly cut between the celebrated astronauts and the unheralded exploits of test pilot Chuck Yeager — the focus here is squarely on the former. Yet with more time to fill, the series is as much about their personal lives as their escape-the-bonds-of-Earth exploits.
In addition, the structure sets up a defining struggle between Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), a philandering playboy, and John Glenn (“Suits'” Patrick J. Adams), a boy scout and natural politician, ill-at-ease with the live-fast, party-hard lifestyles of his comrades, who mostly behave like frat boys on spring break.
“It’s not my world down here,” Glenn, who genuinely loves his wife, says amid the latenight pool parties and carousing.
This latest “The Right Stuff” is also, in some respects, a media story, since the astronauts made a deal with Life magazine, which branded them heroes and sold the romance and patriotism surrounding the space program and NASA for fun and profit.
The tradeoff is a requirement to sustain that wholesome image. That’s a struggle for Gordo Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), who is estranged from his wife (Eloise Mumford) and must patch things up, or at least create the appearance of it, to stay in the program.
There’s still a lot of macho posturing, vigorous competition, brutal trainiing routines, conspicuous early missteps (like rockets that “keep exploding”) and “Mad Men”-era music, propelling the audience back to that moment in time when beating the Russians into orbit felt like a vital national-security issue, not just a Cold War tussle for bragging rights.
Adams and McDorman are both exceptionally good, so much so that they largely eclipse the other astronauts, pitting Shepard’s drive to be first against Glenn’s grasp of the big picture in terms of what’s at stake.
Produced through National Geographic by, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Right Stuff” certainly reflects a more ambitious effort for Disney+, which has largely hewn to the familiar pillars of the studio’s brand. It also owes a debt to the movie “Hidden Figures” and the 2015 ABC drama “Astronaut Wives Club,” which told the same story from other perspectives.
Granted, one can rightly argue that Philip Kaufman’s original movie, which ran more than three hours, admirably covered this particularly terrain, questioning the need for this more drawn-out, generally dutiful retelling.
Objecting to Hollywood remakes, however, is a pretty futile endeavor. Besides, the best answer here is that there’s enough room in space — and nostalgia for the daring souls who first braved it — to accommodate more than one version, as long as the production has the you know what, as this mostly does.
“The Right Stuff” premieres Oct. 9 on Disney+.