No matter how much material we consume about Project Mercury, it's a topic that seems endlessly compelling.

Initiated by Nasa in 1958, and completed in 1963, it was the United States' first man-in-space programme.

And now there's a new documentary film, called The Real Right Stuff, which ventures back to the very beginning of the high-stakes space race era, to tell the remarkable true story of the nation's first astronauts, the original Mercury 7.

Directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings (known for Apollo: Missions To The Moon, and Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes), the feature - a companion piece to scripted series The Right Stuff, which was recently released on Disney+ - is a gripping watch.

Ohio-born Jennings, 59, believes the footage they have used - pulled from hundreds of hours of archival film and radio broadcasts, interviews, home movies, and other rare and never-before-seen material - is largely the reason why.

"What we try and do quite a bit with these types of films is almost create a time machine, for viewers to just get a momentary glimpse of, 'So, that's what it was like to be alive when all that was going on'," notes Jennings.

Even though the material is from more than six decades ago, Nasa has preserved it well, he adds.

"They have tens of thousands of photographs, not to mention 1,000s of hours of footage, so just starting with them is a wonderful way to tell this story.

"But, in addition to that, there's so much news coverage at the time, both national and local - and we always try and find local footage because it's less familiar to most viewers.

"So we are very lucky that we were able to find so many beautiful images and clear sounds to tell the story like a motion picture, even though everything in it is the real stuff.

"And that's always our goal, is to make this style of documentary storytelling feel like a movie - but you're actually learning about yourself along the way."

The film is made in a very particular documentary style, with no talking heads. Instead, it's a self-contained narrative.

"We look at all of the source material as a story beat and we follow something called 'the hero's journey', which is a storytelling motif," elaborates Jennings.

"It's used in a lot of motion pictures to follow the hero, having to venture out into the unknown, slay the dragon and then eventually return home to the hero's welcome. And we apply that to archive [footage], and it fortunately works really well because these stories have all these elements."

The cult celebrity that existed not just around the astronauts, but their families as well, was unusual at the time.

Life magazine, in particular, covered the early days of the programme, with unfettered access to the astronauts - even featuring the Mercury 7 on their front page.

And The Real Right Stuff features unseen and rare photographs, including behind-the-scenes snaps from that famous edition of Life magazine, which provided a glimpse into the home lives of the astronauts: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Donald Slayton, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Scott Carpenter.

Discussing the public response to the Mercury 7, Jennings says they found a lot of great interviews with Tom Wolfe, the American novelist who wrote The Right Stuff in 1979 (the book that became the 1983 movie and the recent episodic series, which stars Patrick J Adams).

Very early on in the film, they include one chat that Wolfe did with American journalist Tom Brokaw, in which he says: "It's easy to forget how a nation - the United States - needed heroes at the time."

"We had this space race going on, they [the Soviet Union] were ahead of us, it was in this time of bizarre science fiction," muses Jennings.

"You know, you had Sputnik a few years earlier, freaking everybody out around the world that the Soviets were going to dominate the planet in some way with this satellite.

"Life magazine certainly wanted to present them - the astronauts and their families and their children - as the best and the brightest that the United States could offer, even though, as we show, they were the best and brightest, but they certainly had their faults and foibles at the same time, especially having to deal with fame and celebrity."

When the Zoom call with Jennings takes place, it's three days after polls closed for the 2020 US presidential election, and the day before it's announced Joe Biden has beaten Donald Trump.

Indeed, it's a time of great flux in American life, with a country that is politically divided.

Perhaps this explains why audiences have responded so well to the TV series The Right Stuff (and hopefully will to this film too) - it takes a look back to a time that, rightly or wrongly, people think of as a better time.

"It was a simpler time - or we like to think it was" is Jennings response when this notion is put to him.

"I think we like to project on that time, and in some ways, this story represents that feeling. For everyone living in this country at that time, it was the main theme that was going on, and I think we are all searching for our roots and our foundation: 'What does it mean to be American? Who are we? How do represent ourselves to the world?'"

The filmmaker continues passionately: "Looking at what those seven astronauts did, they literally risked their lives to try and do something that had never been done before - and they were going to do it no matter what. And I think that's part of the American motif of, 'We're just going to get the job done'. You know, it's who we are.

"And I think with the chaos that's going on in our country today, to look at both the episodic series and through our documentary, it reminds us that, right or wrong, here was a group of people - not just the astronauts, but their families, certainly everyone in Nasa, the government - being willing to believe in it, and push it, that we can do something bigger than ourselves."

- Watch The Real Right Stuff now on Disney+