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Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Capricorn One (1978)

Director: Peter Hyams
Stars: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O J Simpson and Hal Holbrook

Here's a complete genius bit of TV: TCM choose to broadcast Capricorn One, the most famous movie about a fake NASA mission, bring on Buzz Aldrin to introduce it and to do it right now in July 2009. This month we're celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's trip to the moon and while all the conspiracy theorists rise back to the surface to protest the anniversary, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is snapping new photos of all the landing sites and Google have put online a lunar version of the Google Earth app.

One key fact that must drive people like Buzz Aldrin nuts is that while he and his cohorts achieved amazing feats in 1969 with 1969 technology, we can't replicate what they did today. Realistically to do the same thing again, we'd have to start from scratch and reinvent what they invented. The plans are mostly gone and much of the equipment too, so we can't even reverse engineer what we have. So when Peter Hyams made Capricorn One, it wasn't awesomely far fetched, at least to the conspiracy theory nuts in their tin foil hats. The Russians had killed off Yuri Gagarin, after all.

There are caveats. Capricorn One is a manned mission to Mars that was always intended to be real. It was developed for real, it was built for real and it launches for real. The ground control crews are monitoring the real rocket and don't know anything is amiss. The astronauts get onto the rocket for real with every expectation that they're going to Mars, but they don't stay there long, being pulled off the rocket during the countdown to launch during some apparent emergency. And here's where it begins.

They're flown in secret to a secret location where they have a secret meeting with Dr James Kelloway, the man in charge, who they know well and trust. He talks up all NASA's previous achievements as real and explains that he's doing what he's doing for the good of the space programme, but he doesn't have a choice. It boils down to this: the public apparently don't care as much about space any more. People bitched about the Apollo 17 broadcast because they couldn't see the I Love Lucy reruns. The president doesn't like the amount of money being spent and he won't forgive a failure. So Capricorn One has to succeed or the space programme is going to die a quick death.

And it won't succeed. Kelloway knows it won't succeed because two months earlier they discovered that the life support system is inherently broken. The three astronauts would be dead in three weeks and he knows it. So he explains the only option he has left. He walks them onto the movie set with the its landing module on a fake Mars background and the conspiracy nuts immediately had orgasms. Hyams had dared to suggest that NASA could conceive of, plan and execute a fake space mission. He was their dreams come true. He even adds in all the little details that they love so much: the gravity is wrong when astronaut Charles Brubaker jumps off the ladder, the studio lights reflect off his helmet and there's a faint shadow on the red background of the landing module. When the astronaut's wives talk to them in the capsule the distance disappears.

Here's where we start wondering about the aim of the film. Is it really playing up to the conspiracy theorists and suggesting that the Apollo mission was a fake? After all, Aldrin points out before the film, all the hardware up there on the screen is Apollo gear. Or is it denying the conspiracy and reinforcing the standard argument against: how could such a scheme ever succeed? How could those involved, however few there are, keep quiet? How could nobody notice?

Here the tech that notices is called Elliot Whitter. He works at ground control where he keeps finding bizarre numbers on his readouts that don't add up. He proves they're nuts by running his own diagnostic programs to troubleshoot, but he gets absolutely nowhere with his bosses. With nobody else listening, he tells a journalist friend of his a little of what he saw only to vanishe from a crowded bar halfway through a game of pool. So the journalist, all journalist senses a-tingling, begins to investigate, especially when he visits Whitter's apartment, which he knows well, only to find it isn't his any more. And of course when people start trying to kill you, you can't help but know you're on to something.

This film had a major cast though it's surprising how many of the names looking back are best known now for TV rather than film. The trio of astronauts are James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson, though we focus very much on Brolin. It's fun watching OJ Simpson with the benefit of hindsight. He goes along with the scheme because he doesn't want his family to get hurt; he doesn't take the knife because he doesn't know how to use it. If only he'd had more screen time he might have got into an SUV and been chased by half of NASA's finest.

Dr Kelloway is a superb Hal Holbrook, believable both as the man with principles and the man who is having to break them in a massive way. Elliott Gould is the journalist, Robert Caulfield, who comes into his own as the film progresses, underplaying the role nicely without ever falling prey to the standard journalist shtick. He gets the top credit. Brenda Vaccaro is a very effective lead astronaut's wife. Backing them all up are people like Karen Black, David Huddleston and a highly memorable Telly Savalas, along with David Doyle (Bosley from Charlie's Angels), and not one but two actors from Hill Street Blues, James B Sikking and Barbara Bosson.

It isn't the actors that resonate though, however good they are at what they do, it's that conspiracy theory material. You just can't get away from it here because its the essence of the piece and it's why it's far better known than it ought to be. It isn't a bad film, but it's not spectacular. It deserves a spot in film history as a decent seventies thriller, but there were a lot of those and many were better than this. Yet none of those tapped into a vein of popular culture that refuses to die.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In hindsight, One cannot help but wonder if OJ Simpson has really been put away because of the popularity of the Capricorn one movie. After all, the very sensitive subject of any possible faked Nasa Mission cannot be tolerated. No matter the cost in human lives.

And then there is the subject that will not die of Building Number 7 at the World Trade Center. It is not Healthy to Question the Official Version of events, no matter how awkward they are later revealed to be.