Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Capricorn One (1978) * * ¾

The setting is the late 1970s, and the first manned mission to Mars is on the launch pad ready to blast off. We hear the voice of a radio announcer give the solemn details of what was eaten at breakfast by the three astronauts who begin their journey to Mars this day. The sequence lasts perhaps 10 minutes, and it's very promising. It's funny and accurate in all the banalities we have seen on TV of NASA rockets into outer space. Then CAPRICORN ONE gets down to its real narrative. It is the story of a phony USA Mars landing, faked by employees of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, because the mission's life-support system is faulty. To scratch the mission would mean the end of the nation's space program. So says Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook), the mission's director, as he tries to convince us--as well as the mission's three astronauts, who've been removed from their space capsule at the last minute.

Lt. Col Peter Willis: Hey, Dr. Kelloway. Funny thing happened on the way to Mars. Anybody hungry? Oh, the marvels of American science. Here we are millions of miles from earth, and we can still send out for pizza.

Congressman Hollis Peaker: (At the launch of Capricorn One Peaker notices the Vice-President ogling a woman through his binoculars. He points to the launch pad) It's that big, tall, white thing over there. You can't miss it.

NASA realizes that a faulty life support system has doomed any chance of a successful flight, so for political and financial purposes they decide to fake the landing rather than cancel the mission. Minutes before the launch, the bewildered crew of Col. Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Lt. Col. Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and Cmdr. John Walker (O. J. Simpson) are removed from the capsule and flown to an old abandoned United States Army Air Corps base deep within the desert. The televised launch proceeds on schedule, but the public is unaware that spacecraft Capricorn One does not have a crew.

At the remote base, the astronauts are informed they will fake the television footage from Mars and it is their patriotic duty to participate. Initially they refuse, but authorities imply their careers and the lives of their families are at stake if they do not cooperate.

Col. Charles Brubaker: This is really wonderful. If we go along with you and lie our asses off, the world of truth and ideals is, er, protected. But if we don't want to take part in some giant rip-off of yours then somehow or other we're managing to ruin the country. You're pretty good, Jim. I'll give you that.
Dr. James Kelloway: You think it's all a couple of looney scientists, it's not! It's bigger. There are people out there, forces out there, who have a lot to lose. They're grown ups. It's gotten too big, it's in the hands of grown ups!

The astronauts remain in captivity for a period of several months and are filmed "landing on Mars" within a studio located at the base. The conspiracy is known to only a select few NASA officials, until alert technician Elliot Whittier (Robert Walden) stumbles across a bizarre technical anomaly, namely television transmissions from Mars made by the crew are being received by ground control before the spacecraft telemetry arrives. This cannot be possible. The most logical explanation for the anomaly is that the TV transmissions and spacecraft telemetry are coming from two separate locations, and the location of the TV transmissions is much closer to Earth than Mars. Whittier is confused by the anomaly and wishes to investigate further, but is told not to worry about it by his employer. Even so, Whittier feels sufficiently uneasy to share his concerns with journalist friend Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) at a local bar. But before Whittier can fully set out his concerns, he mysteriously disappears.

As Caulfield discovers that all evidence of his friend's life appears to have been erased, he becomes suspicious and begins investigating the Mars mission. Attempts to silence Caulfield by trying to kill him are made, but Caulfield survives. Meanwhile back at the abandoned military base, the astronauts begin to suspect that if the conspiracy is to be successful, they will eventually have to be killed. The astronauts' suspicions become reality when their empty capsule burns up during atmospheric reentry and they are declared dead to a mournful nation. The captive astronauts immediately stage a daring escape and attempt to evade military forces in order to expose the conspiracy. Stranded in the desert, they try to make their way back to civilization while being pursued by a pair of helicopters.

Col. Charles Brubaker: We... are dead. We are dead.
Lt. Col Peter Willis: S**t. I was such a terrific guy.

Robert Caulfield: Look, when a reporter tells his assignment editor that he thinks he may be on to something that could be really big, the assignment editor is supposed to say: "You've got forty eight hours, kids, and you better come up with something good or it's going to be your neck!" That's what he's supposed to say, I saw it in a movie.
Walter Loughlin: You're not crazy, I'm crazy. I'm crazy for listening and I'm crazy for saying what I'm about to say. I'll give you twenty four hours to come up with something. Not forty eight. I saw the movie too, it was twenty four. You're fired! Oh, I love how that sounds. I love that so much I'm going to say it again. You're fired. You're through. Oh, I love it!

In the end, Brubaker is the only crew member to avoid capture, Willis and Walker are captured and presumably murdered. Caulfield's investigation leads him to the desert, where he finds the military base and the set, and with the help of cropduster pilot Albain (Telly Savalas), he manages to rescue Brubaker before the men in the helicopters can capture or kill him. The film becomes a chase movie set in the Nevada desert.

Robert Caulfield: My name is Caulfield.
Albain: Hey, I can't help that.
Robert Caulfield: Mr Albain, how much do you charge to dust a field?
Albain: Twenty five dollars.
Robert Caulfield: I'd like to hire your plane.
Albain: That'll be a hundred dollars.
Robert Caulfield: You said you charged twenty five?
Albain: Twenty five dollars to dust a field, but you ain't got no field because you ain't no farmer, which means you ain't poor and I think you're a pervert!
Robert Caulfield: Okay, one hundred.
Albain: One hundred and twenty five.
Robert Caulfield: What?
Albain: Because you said yes to a hundred too quick, which means you can afford a hundred and twenty five. Now what the hell is your friend doing here?
Robert Caulfield: He's lost.
Albain: He robbed a bank or something?
Robert Caulfield: No.
Albain: Well, I get a third.
Robert Caulfield: What?
Albain: We find him, I get a third of the loot. Now keep your goddamn head down. (after killing helicopter pilots) Perverts! (turns to Caulfield) Remember I get half.

The film ends with Caulfield bringing Brubaker to the astronauts' memorial service, exposing the conspiracy in dramatic fashion in front of dozens of witnesses and live national television.

CAPRICORN ONE is a thriller movie about a Mars landing hoax. The plot is simple and rather chilling for this expensive stylistically bankrupt suspense melodrama. It was written and directed by Peter Hyams and produced by Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment production company for Warner Brothers. Although thematically CAPRICORN ONE is a typical 1970s government-conspiracy thriller with similarities to Hyams's subsequent film OUTLAND (1981), the story was inspired by allegations that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax. The movie has been rated PG for some mildly vulgar language, but it offends only common sense. It's a G-rated movie in disguise, not a great film for the quality cast involved, but a good one that drags in some spots. A few scenes go on a bit too long, and the film is full of quirky characters who occasionally spend so long being quirky that it is obvious their purpose is to show off that quirk. CAPRICORN ONE is a flawed and dated movie, but still worth seeing for it's nostalgia value and for a believable and compelling action film.

This movie falls into the type of conspiracy film that became a fad following the Watergate scandal. Peter Hyams says he pitched the idea for CAPRICORN ONE around for several years but it was not until Watergate made the idea fashionable that he was able to sell the script. The plot is quite clever. Hyams borrows more than an idea or two from writer Barry Malzberg’s satirical exhumations of the space-program and from the lunatic conspiracy theorists who insist that the Moon Landing was faked on TV.

The cast also includes: Brenda Vaccaro (Kay Brubaker), Karen Black (Judy Drinkwater), David Huddleston (Hollis Peaker), David Doyle (Walter Loughlin), Lee Bryant (Sharon Willis), Denise Nicholas (Betty Walker), James Sikking (Control Room Man), Alan Fudge (Capsule Communicator), James Karen (Vice President Price), Virginia Kaiser (Mrs. Price), Nancy Malone (Mrs. Peaker), Hank Stohl (General Enders), Norman Bartold (President), Darrell Zwerling (Dr. Bergen), Milton Selzer (Dr. Burroughs), Lou Frizzell (Horace Gruning), Chris Hyams (Charles Brubaker, Jr.), Seanna Marre (Sandy Brubaker), Paul Picerni (Jerry), Barbara Bosson (Alva Leacock), Paul Haney (Paul Cunningham), Jon Cedar (F.B.I. Man 1), Steve Tannen (Man at Hangar 1), Trent Dolan (Man at Hangar 2), Todd Hoffman (N.A.S.A. Usher), Marty Anka (Bartender), Ken White (Tracking Technician), John Hiscock (Reporter 1), Bridget Byrne (Reporter 2), Colin Dangaard (Reporter 3), James Bacon (Reporter 4), Sandy Davidson (N.A.S.A. Reporter), Ron Cummins (F.B.I. Man 2), Dennis O'Flaherty (F.B.I. Man 3), Zack Taylor (F.B.I. Man 4), and Frank Farmer (Policeman). Jerry Goldsmith composed the original music. Peter Hyams wrote the screenplay and directed.

When it was released, CAPRICORN ONE received a good deal of criticism from the science fiction community for its less than reverent attitude toward the space program. Writer David Gerrold claimed, "It belittles and demeans the highest aspirations of the mind ... devalues the integrity of science itself. Those of us who stood in our backyards on quiet summer nights, gazing up at the stars and wondering, hoping ... the makers of CAPRICORN ONE have taken our dream girl and portrayed her as a prostitute." This argument was defeated by the fact that NASA co-operated with and even loaned equipment and space modules for the making of the film. Rather than trashing its ideals, CAPRICORN ONE actually seems to be lamenting the dream that inspired the space program. Hal Holbrook has a great soliloquy early on in the film about the loss of the dream inspired by John F. Kennedy’s original call for space exploration in the face of 1970s budgetary cutbacks.

This high-concept film is one of Peter Hyams' best. The conspiracy theory premise requires a major suspension of disbelief, but Hyams makes it worthwhile with some inspired work behind the camera. His script is peppered with plenty of rapid-fire dialogue worthy of a Howard Hawks comedy. The exchanges between Elliott Gould and Karen Black are particularly memorable and Hyams applies plenty of style and energy to the film's action set pieces, especially the memorable "dogfight" finale. All the thrills Hyams generates are bolstered by Bill Butler's sharp widescreen cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's rousing, militaristic score. However, the glue that holds the film together is the tight ensemble work of its gifted cast: Elliott Gould effectively utilizes his off-kilter charm to flesh out a stock "intrepid reporter" role, James Brolin is appropriately stoic as the bravest of the astronaut trio, and Hal Holbrook is quietly effective as a government figure with a hidden agenda. There are also plenty of great supporting roles, the best being Telly Savalas' scene-stealing work as an easily annoyed aviator. Basically CAPRICORN ONE is a lightweight but likable movie which provides plenty of fun for thriller fans.

Two novelizations of the film were written and published by separate authors in 1978. The first was written by Ken Follett under the pseudonym Bernard L. Ross and published in the UK, the other was written by Ron Goulart and published in the US. Both versions are based on Peter Hyam's screenplay.

Lionsgate's DVD of CAPRICORN ONE is an enhanced transfer that replicates cinematographer Bill Butler's sharp images and showcases Jerry Goldsmith's punchy score. The DVD includes a featurette and an entertaining commentary. Director Peter Hyams talks about sifting through official lies while serving as a reporter in Vietnam. He's realistic about his film and proud of its technical achievement. One of Hyams' inspirations came from a statement made by an astronaut. During a launch, the astronaut mused over the fact that he was sitting on an enormous tower of explosives, riding a spaceship in which each part was designed and assembled by the lowest bidder.

Hyams doesn't talk much about the budget shortcuts, such as the fact that most of the desert scenes, including the aerial stunts, seem to be filmed adjacent to the familiar Red Rock Canyon area north of Palmdale, California. Unfortunately, his "helicopters as characters" aerial choreography has dated badly. The bug-like copters turn as if to speak to one another, and behave like hound dogs on the scent. They also fly in tight formation at all times, a risk that's both unnecessary and counterproductive for a desert search. Hyams does point out the film's excellent miniatures, and explains the scheduling problem with SUPERMAN (1978) that gave CAPRICORN ONE a top summer distribution slot.

The featurette places writer-director Hyams opposite a historian and a UFO phenomena buff for an uneven discussion. They cover Hyams' other inspiration, the persistent claims by conspiracy theorists that the Apollo moon landings never happened, and were faked just as seen in CAPRICORN ONE.

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