Film discussion

Capricorn One – Throwback 40

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the very first Moon landing, and there’s been conspiracy theories about it having been faked ever since. In fact, the notion has been around for a very long time – the very earliest depiction of a staged mission to the lunar surface actually pre-dated the Eagle’s landing in the Sea of Tranquility by more than a decade, with James E. Gunn’s 1956 story Cave Of Night, which sees the Air Force setting up a phony mission to stir up funding for the space program, and faking the death of an astronaut in the process, only to have a reporter uncover the truth about what had happened.

Despite NASA having done its utmost to try and debunk the various theories and stories about how the Moon landings didn’t happen, the idea still refuses to go away, and has been a recurrent theme in popular culture. One of the more popular ones posits Stanley Kubrick was actually behind staging Armstrong and Aldrin’s epic voyage in a studio, which some people feel is given credence by the high level of authentic-looking visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out the previous year. In fact, this very notion was the basis of a 2002 fake documentary, Dark Side Of The Moon, which ‘revealed’ Kubrick’s involvement, through the clever use of out-of-context interview clips with Buzz Aldrin, Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and even Christine Kubrick – Stanley’s widow – to support this premise.

Further to this, the 2012 documentary Room 237 – about Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining – uses analysis to try and draw connections between the film and the first Moon landing, along with a number of other events. The idea has even been used for comic purposes, as the basis of the 2015 comedy Moonwalkers was the efforts of a CIA agent to recruit Kubrick to stage the lunar mission, but ends up hiring an imposter instead. The following year’s release Operation Avalanche told the fictional story of CIA agents filming a fake Moon mission in 1969,  in order to try and preserve national pride, when it became clear that NASA wouldn’t be ready in time to beat the Russians to get a mission safely to the surface.

This has been such a prevalent concept in popular culture over time that it has been referenced in everything from Friends and Arrested Development (where the joke was that Ron Howard claimed that he and his brother Clint hid in the rafters of a studio to watch NASA faking the Moon landing on the set of Gentle Ben), to The X-Files (which seems like very natural territory for giving the notion an airing, and makes it even more surprising it didn’t feature until the latest mini-series revival of the show). Perhaps one of he things which really popularised and also crystallised the idea for a mass audience was in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, when Sean Connery’s Bond breaks into a set showing astronauts on a reproduction of the Moon, helping (either inadvertently or otherwise) to seed the very concept in the public psyche.

It was 1978’s Capricorn One – released less than 10 years after Armstrong’s one small step for man – that took things one step further, by using it as the basis of a story where the first manned mission to Mars ends up being mocked up, out of necessity, as the astronauts would die en route due to a systems issue if the launch went ahead as planned. The film’s writer and director Peter Hyams – known for his work on later sci-fi films Outland and 2010: The Year We Made Contact (in the process inadvertently setting up another link between Kubrick, 2001 and the Moon landings) first came up with the story in 1972, but his script had failed to gain any traction in Hollywood, as it was felt to be too far-fetched.

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However, the landscape shifted over the next few years, due to a disenchantment with the US Government following the Vietnam War, as well as the Watergate scandal, which led to growing distrust in officialdom and figures of authority. The release of All The President’s Men in 1976 had perfectly captured the mood of the time, with its fictionalised account of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigations into Watergate, and so it seemed the perfect time for Hyams to try and revive his script – one of the central characters is a journalist (Elliott Gould) who happens upon the scheme to fake the Mars mission, and shows his efforts to blow the whole story open, while facing opposition from shadowy and unseen forces. Hyams’ story perfectly captures the zeitgeist of what was a more cynical and mistrustful era in comparison to the 1960s.

Hyams had previously worked for CBS news in New York and Chicago during the Vietnam War, and through his reporting realised the power of the media in being able to distort reality and truth; this gave him the idea of how a fake space mission could be carefully stage managed, and no-one would ever know. In fact, Capricorn One is still relevant to this day, as we live in a time where the US President speaks of “fake news” with alarming regularity, while spreading his own false narrative with impunity, and trying very much to control the message that the public sees, to paint his own version of reality. As such, Capricorn One still seems to be a remarkably plausible notion, especially as the US space program is very much past its glory days, but is still trying to reach for the Red Planet, despite budget cuts as well as a mix of political pressure and indifference.

The film also manages in some ways to be be very much ahead of its time, as one of the three astronauts – Commander John Walker (played by O.J. Simpson) – actually pre-dates the first actual space flight by an African-American by some five years. At the time, Simpson had been making the transition from a successful sports career into acting, and Capricorn One was one of his most prominent roles before he became famous for his turn as Detective Nordberg in The Naked Gun series (as well as greater notoriety on the other side of the law in the mid-1990s). Simpson actually puts in a creditable performance as a clean-cut, all-American hero, and is perfectly paired with both James Brolin and Sam Waterston as his fellow crew members.

The trio are snatched from the launch pad at the eleventh hour and whisked away to an abandoned base in the desert, where they find that due to one of the Capricorn program’s contractors having been rather too greedy in cutting corners to make a profit on the life support system, it would fail after three weeks into the mission, and kill all of the astronauts. An attempt to talk the crew into going along with a plan to fake the entire mission falls upon deaf ears, which is where things take a far more sinister turn, when it soon becomes clear that dark forces working behind the scenes have far too much to lose should the Capricorn program get cancelled if the truth is revealed, and so the astronauts are told that their families’ lives will be at risk if they don’t comply.

Despite a few moments where it seems the mission’s commander, Colonel Charles Brubaker (Brolin), is going to reveal the truth during a live link-up with the crew’s families in Mission Control, all seems to be going well until the capsule burns up on re-entry after the heat shield becomes separated during descent. Suddenly, the plan to return the trio to the capsule on splashdown before retrieval becomes an impossibility. When they realise that something has gone wrong, the three of them decide to make a desperate bid to escape, as they know that they are now expendable, and wouldn’t be able to return to their normal lives, with the entire world believing they are already dead.

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In the meantime, journalist Robert Caulfield (Gould) learns from one of his friends who works on the program that there are some irregularities which he’s come across during his time in Mission Control, indicating the signals from the crew aren’t coming from deep space, but are much closer to home. His friend then goes missing, with all almost traces of his life having been erased, and Caulfield begins to investigate, at which point he finds his life in jeopardy, as his car has been tampered with, leading him to crash off a bridge into a river, nearly drowning. It’s clear that Caulfield is intended to be something of a downtrodden hack, but still with a sense of journalistic integrity, and Gould does a great job of getting us firmly in his corner as the conspiracy starts to unfold while he’s digging for the truth.

The astronauts manage to commandeer a small jet at the base, but their escape bid hits a major complication when it soon becomes clear that the jet is low on fuel, and they need to ditch it in the desert, before going their separate ways on foot, in order to try and reach civilisation and get their story out to the public domain before they end up being recaptured and – presumably – killed. Hyams manages to get across the jeopardy of their situation, as they battle not only dehydration, but also scorpions and rattlesnakes, as well as the relentless and unforgiving hostile terrain itself, with the seemingly endless desert mirroring the look of the Martian landscape.

The bid for freedom also brings to mind Spielberg’s 1971 film Duel, where the lead character is pursued by an unseen figure in a menacing tanker truck through the isolated Californian desert. Hyams has the sinister, hidden forces embodied in the pursuit of the three astronauts by two unmarked black helicopters, and we only get to see the anonymous pilots briefly as they leave the craft while hunting down Brubaker. Meanwhile, Caulfield is hot on their trail too, and has enlisted help from the rather gruff and abrasive pilot of a cropdusting biplane, played with great relish by Telly Savalas, who does a good enough job to make us forget about his famous and contemporary TV persona, Theo Kojak. Hyams certainly manages to ratchet up the tension throughout, as it isn’t necessarily clear who out of the crew – if any – will manage to live to tell their story and reveal the whole conspiracy, until we get closer to the climax.

The movie also gets credit for having a seal of authenticity by managing to use actual footage of Saturn V launches (and thereby avoiding the risk of having the movie undermined by having the whole thing depicted by low-budget VFX of the period), as well as managing to borrow actual hardware from NASA (which is even more remarkable, given the hatchet job the organisation gets as a result of its fictional involvement in the conspiracy at the heart of the story). The film manages to still stand up today as a strong dramatic piece, and the central themes resonate just as strongly – if not even more so than before – which means that it has a lot of interest to a modern audience.

Capricorn One pops up in the TV schedules from time to time, and is worth checking out if you’ve never seen it before, or returning to it if you have, as it strongly deserves a rewatch.

Are you a fan of Capricorn One? Let us know.

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