Sure it’s visually flat; sure it’s often bogus; sure it ends on a completely fictionalized, terribly hackneyed applause line that felt like a “Dead Poets Society” knockoff. But hey, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” preaches that protest matters and that the police are bad. It’s the sort of movie that takes the radical lessons of the 1960s — both its steps forward for justice and its missteps into anarchy — and reduces them to a teachable moment, a sanitized bite-sized tutorial about the need to bend the rules to enact change.
Sorkin constantly feels the need to hold our hand through the teachable moments. When he wants to tell us that conformity in the face of racial oppression is bad, the director can’t just allow the fellow defendants to glare at Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) when he stands for the judge after he orders Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) bound and gagged. Hayden also has to be confronted by an African American housekeeper played by Michelle Hurst. But this modern desire for Black agency is undercut by Sorkin’s old-fashioned tokenization: Her name is not uttered once during the whole sequence.
If hippies and yippies aren’t to your taste, Disney Plus partnered with the NatGeo channel to resurrect “The Right Stuff” for a brand-new series that might be better understood as “Mad Men: In Space!” than a genuine adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s classic nonfiction book. I’m referring not only to the casting of “Mad Men” regulars in key roles or to its aesthetics, but also to the project’s obvious desire to deconstruct and deglamorize the supposed ideal of mid-century America.
Jake McDorman even plays Alan Shepard like a highflying version of Madison Avenue advertising genius Don Draper: Square-jawed, deep-voiced, intensely private and sporting aviators and a cig and a Scotch at nearly all times. Trudy Cooper (Eloise Mumford), wife of astronaut Gordo Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue), is given the backstory of a frustrated feminist, a pilot never given a chance to excel because of her sex. She has to play the good housewife for her hubby’s sake: another token of a past best fled from.
Both “Trial” and “Stuff” reduce the 1960s to a sort of flat morality play, an era that can show us how we were wrong and how we can be better.
By contrast, consider Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film adaptation of “The Right Stuff.”
It’s shockingly funny, sharing as it does Wolfe’s bemused skepticism about the space race’s ultimate aim and deep respect for the men engaged in it. Two recruiters (played with comic zeal by Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum) suggest acrobats and daredevils would make the best astronauts. A minute-long pee joke precedes Alan Shepard’s (Scott Glenn) first journey into space. Members of the media come across as a clamoring cloud of pests used by buffoonish pols like Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat).
Still, though its tone is somewhat lighter than these more recent and more dour period pieces, the movie is about something in a way that the TV series isn’t, at least so far. If the television adaptation wants to reduce the space race to psychology, the movie explores what goes into building a myth. The sound barrier is a demon to be conquered. The head of the Soviet space program is shown engulfed in a rocket’s flames, as if he’s a devil made by the evil empire to crush humanity’s hopes and dreams and then to end humanity itself by dropping nukes on us from space.
And it’s about what it’s like to be transformed into a historical figure. Bloodied and bruised as he walks away from his ejection seat and burning airplane in the film’s closing moments, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is spotted on the horizon by a rescue team. “Is that a man?” a character asks. “You’re damn right it is,” another replies. Yeager set the standard for every other pilot — and every other man — of his era: He did what he did not for money but because it was there to do.
The film version of “The Right Stuff” is great because it’s concerned with not only the way myths are made and can be used by politicians and press alike, but also the core ideals underpinning those myths, among them the inherent greatness of pursuing something new and excellent. Kaufman and his crew showed us how to live, rather than spoon-feeding us tips about what to believe.