A colleague had lent me the book, which has been on my To-Read list for years and I was hoping to finish before the movie rolled around, but I fell short by a couple of chapters and had to read them when I got home.
I always enjoy Tom Wolfe's writing and I was fascinated by what he had to say about the mentality of the fighter pilot and the unexpected direction taken by the space programme that looked set to turn pilots into passive specimens in a capsule.
The film was fairly faithful to the original material, although some plotlines had to be left out or simplified. I feared that Wolfe's beautiful turns of phrase would be lost, but all the best ones were cleverly put into characters' mouths as the story unfolded and the action moved from Edwards to Cape Canaveral.
One bizarre deviation was the inexplicable "G'day, mate, we're Aboriginals!" scene in which the strange sparkling UFOs reported by John Glenn during his orbital flight are explained as the results of a mystic ritual performed in the Australian bush to help the astronaut on his way.
All the technical details looked thoroughly realistic throughout, however - horribly so, in the case of the medical examinations undergone by the pilot hopefuls - while changing fashions, cars and music brought us from the '40s to the '60s.
The cast is large, and some of the seven astronauts whose career we follow don't get a great deal to do; a pity in a story which celebrates the strong allegiance they form against the civilian world when it tries to push them around. The pilots and astronauts may have larger-than-life egos but they come across as the only real people in a world of baying press packs, Strangelove-style politicians and comedy-German scientists.
Sound barrier breaker Chuck Yeager is presented as the real hero of the piece, always pictured standing tall and strong in the desert, accompanied by a glinting aircraft, a sweating horse or his beautiful wife. I wondered whether whoever cast John Barrowman in Doctor Who had seen the film, as there was a lot of Captain Jack in Yeager's grin and his hairstyle (though less of a nancy-boy aura). By the end of the movie, the contrast between the fêted astronauts surrounded by crazy excess and the lone flyboy attempting to break a record nobody cared about could not have been more marked.
It's a very long movie. It's testimony to how riveting it was that I looked at my watch during the credits expecting it to be around 9:30, only to find it was a quarter past ten - nonetheless, by the end I was pretty hungry and in similar straits to Alan Shepard during the farcical 'Request permission to urinate' scene.
Spoilers: The Russians get a man in space before the Americans do; the first American in space is a chimpanzee; the X-20 programme gets canned.