BLIND SPOT REVIEW #4: Capricorn One

Going back and seeing the movies I should have seen or always wanted to see, but missed.

(Image: Wikipedia)

How did it get to my "blind spot?"  Like so many movies that will make this series of vintage reviews, Capricorn One was simply before my time, released in 1978.  It was first suggested to me by a friend-of-a-friend, Dave Berg, a country radio DJ on 102.5 "The Fox" in Rochester, Minnesota in a Facebook thread about science fiction and genre films.  I learned about more after watching The Final Countdown, another little buried treasure piece of entertainment along the same vein, about a year or two ago.  I've kept it on my radar and had a hard a tough time finding a copy to see.

Why should it be seen?  Capricorn One, with its wild plot, deserves to be slotted as a science fiction entry with its conspiracy thriller peers of the same 1970's era, which makes up a fascinating time period and subgenre of cinematic history.  In a way, the NASA of then, dealing declining public interest and congressional support after the peak of the Apollo program, was not all that different to the state of NASA today after the recent retirement of the Space Shuttle missions and an uncertain future in tough economic times.  If anything, have a little guilty pleasure fun by using Capricorn One as a time capsule pre-game snack for the heavily-hyped Gravity coming this October.

Background:  This British-financed independent film with a small budget put writer-director Peter Hyams (2010, Outland, The Presidio, Timecop, End of Days) back on the map after early feature film failure and was the most successful independent film of that year.  Despite a big name ensemble cast for back then, filled with screen favorites that have faded away now, Capricorn One most likely ends up as a footnote on the film resume of the notorious O.J. Simpson and a fun reference for a famous Telly Savalas extended cameo.  The wild plot that I alluded to earlier is the massive fictional hoax at the center of Capricorn One. 

Set in the 1970's after the decline of the Apollo program, NASA is about to embark on the first manned mission to Mars, an eight-month journey, with a weak ballyhoo when a swerve occurs.  Strapped in and ready to go on the launchpad, the three-man astronaut team of Capricorn One of Colonel Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Lieutenant Colonel Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and Commander John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are ordered to evacuate the rocket and are whisked away to an abandoned military base in the desert.  During their removal, the unmanned rocket launch still takes place in front of the watchful public and press as if everything is normal.

Demanding an explanation, the crew are met by Houston Mission Control supervisor Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Halbrook), a man they all know and trust.  Kelloway brings them up to speed that a cheaply made life-support system manufacturing error was discovered a few hours before the launch and their evacuation will end up saving their lives.  However, the big question looming is why continue the launch.  With NASA already facing declining funding and support, Kelloway implores that a scratched mission would ruin the administration's already weakened reputation.  This mission had to, and still has to, appear to be a success.

With that motive, Kelloway's plan for ensuring success involves a massive cover-up.  He escorts the crew to warehouse on the base that has been retrofitted as a film studio with a mock Martian landscape and trainer spacecraft modules.  His plan is to manufacture the lie and hoax that Brubaker, Willis, and Walker will indeed land on Mars and return home.  His goal is to protect the integrity of the program at the cost of public truth.

With their families held at ransom by bigger federal enemies, the crew are blackmailed to comply with Kelloway's plan.  In order for the mission timeline to appear intact, for the next several months, the three are held in isolation from the outside world and occasionally broadcast staged transmissions to Houston, including a fake video greeting to their wives.  When an astute Mission Control technician (Robert Walden) starts to see readings that suggest the crew are closer than they are supposed to, he asks questions and confides his concerns to a local reporter friend, Robert Caufield (Elliot Gould).  With new eyes and suspicions, the loose ends for Kelloway grow as crunch time for completing this hoax mission gets more and more complicated.  

Reaction:  FOUR STARS-- I had an absolute blast watching this film!  It was unexpectedly serious and exciting.  Sure, it's dated and cheesy compared to today's thrillers, but I like that they played it straight instead of reaching for farce.  A good conspiracy thriller needs to make its scenario and setup believable to be effective.  Capricorn One, before a little bit of hair-brained ending, had that successful plausible tone nailed.  A big assist for that goes to the full cooperation from NASA itself, which provided a lot of props and access, ironically, in backing a movie about their fictional misdoings.  If NASA really was going to make a fake mission, you really felt that this route was plausible and decisively devious.

The casting is a good bit of fun.  I forgot how good these guys were back in their day.  James Brolin plays the stoic hero just fine and Sam Waterston brings a personal motormouth comedic touch to the team.  Hal Holbrook plays cool, calm, and calculated in a role that probably would be characterized by a lesser actor as the flustered bad guy that yells orders and pounds his fist on his desk repeatedly all movie.  Once the mission goes rogue, Elliot Gould takes over the meat of the movie as the intrepid reporter who's ever so close to the scoop of the century.  The cherry on top is a ball-busting Telly Savalas in an extended cameo as a crop duster pilot that saves the day.  Eat your heart out, Randy Quaid in Independence Day.  

Inspired by the long-held conspiracy theories that the Apollo 11 moon landing was staged and playing off of the Post-Watergate public mistrust of the government, Peter Hyams has Capricorn One run with that possibility and aims for the next great conquest of Mars, a promise we have yet to fulfill in over forty years since the Apollo program.  Combining elements of investigative journalism and space program exuberance with the tone of conspiracy thrillers and survival action,Capricorn One covers a great range of watchable angles and elements.  The drama is compelling and the chase sequences, both on the road and in the air, are phenomenal for their day.  Composer Jerry Goldsmith punctuates these moments with a sweet little score and Jaws cinematographer Bill Butler adds class and expertise with the excellent camerawork.

Once again, I was predominantly surprised and impressed.  I give Capricorn One a solid recommendation if some free time rolls your way on Netflix.  Initial idea-starter Dave Berg has already lined up the suggestion of Michael Crichton's Westworld to follow this up.  That's yet another movie I've criminally missed that fits the "Blind Spot" project.  You all may be getting a sci-fi double feature.

LESSON #1: THE MOTIVE OF A COVER-UP OR HOAX-- The big reason why to fake the Mars landing is the crux of the film's conflict.  Public perception and steady finances are what keep many government programs chugging along.  Once a few failures add up, the fickle mob of the American society can turn on you on a dime.  NASA has fallen from great success and a failed Mars mission would sink the worthwhile program, so much so that covering up failure with a fake success is worth money, mistrust, and people's lives.

LESSON #2: ACCOUNTING FOR A WIDE RANGE OF LOOSE ENDS-- The depth of a cover-up of this size and magnitude is daunting and scary.  Dr. Kelloway means to deceive the President and the entire American public to paint three men as heroes who are part of his lie.  Like all lies, they get worse and larger by their length and their scope.  That also increases multitude and significance of the proverbial "loose ends."  Loose ends must be dealt with decisively and entirely, but not to the point where they draw unwanted attention and blow a good hoax's cover.

LESSON #3: TRUTH IS TIMELESS AND INTEGRITY MATTERS-- As victims who will soon be portrayed as false heroes, the astronauts caught in the middle of this scandal and the reporter trying stand up to the opposition become the moral compasses of the film.  The three astronauts understand Kelloway's motive, but only give in when their families' safety is at stake.  The know the real truth of false accomplishments is no way to be remembered or revered.  They are men of stronger integrity than to live a lie.  At the same time, Caulfield, who is widely despised for his grandiose story claims, knows that he's actually got one right for a change if he can find the whole truth and renew his own integrity.