Capricorn One (1977)

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Capricorn One
Dir. Peter Hyams
Premiered December 17, 1977

I have a problem with conspiracy thrillers.

It’s not just the fact that idiots take them seriously. God knows how much time was spent debating the “merit” of The Da Vinci Code, a pulp novel never meant to provoke the kind of pseudohistorical rumination that it did.

Rather, much like the dreaded Chosen One narrative beloved by hack YA novelists, conspiracy thrillers are easy to write but difficult to make compelling. This usually leaves you with a conspiracy that is (a) implausibly all-powerful and infallible, (b) needlessly complicated, (c) makes no sense, and/or (d) isn’t explained at all, but merely shifts the burden of responsibility onto a vague Other. For the latter, see 1974’s The Parallax View, which expects you to cower in terror before a mildly threatening enemy whose identity, motivations, and goals are never known.

Capricorn One feels my pain, and comes up with the perfect solution: a conspiracy that’s a total cock-up. The reality of spurious government conspiracy theories, such as those revolving around the Apollo program which inspired this film, is that they would be impossible to keep secret given the sheer number of people involved, and basically not worth the effort. It is this understanding that drives the story. It’s also entertaining as hell.

It’s launch date at Cape Canaveral, as the astronauts of Capricorn One (James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson) prepare for the first manned mission to Mars. But there’s a problem; the men are rushed out of the craft and onto a charter plane while the launch mysteriously continues without them.

Secreted away to an abandoned World War II airbase, NASA’s flight director (Hal Holbrook) explains to them that NASA was ripped off by the company that made the life support system for the mission, rendering an actual Mars landing impossible. But Congress and the general public have sadly lost their taste for the historic importance of space exploration, so to avoid the risk of losing funding, they decide to fake the entire eight-month mission on a soundstage. It’s a passionate, even sympathetic offer, and one the astronauts can’t refuse, as NASA is willing to go to some surprising lengths to keep the hoax secret.

But of course they go too far. When a technician (Robert Walden) raises questions about the communications readings, he’s disappeared, presumably murdered, and then methodically erased from the historical record. This is not without its loose ends, such as the man’s reporter friend Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould, who, looks and talent nonwithstanding, could only have been a leading man in the 1970s), who is nearly killed himself when NASA sabotages his car. But he escapes his assassination, as do the astronauts, fanning out into the Mojave Desert. It’s then up to Caulfield to put the pieces together and find the men before they are claimed either by their government captors or the desert heat.

Capricorn One would be good just for overcoming my unease toward conspiracy thrillers. It’s even better for doing so in a way that’s sympathetically written, well-acted, good-looking, and downright fun. Every role in the film is played exactly as it should be, from Holbrook’s worn-down former idealist to Gould’s level-headed reporter, Waterston’s deadpan comic relief, and Brolin’s square-jawed determination. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is miles ahead of his previous work on Damnation Alley. Maybe he just had the sense to save his good stuff. The cinematography and editing are top-notch; an expertly paced thrill ride. That might seem like the bare minimum, but it’s amazing what most movies seem to get away with, and Capricorn One makes the absolute most of it.

Signs This Was Made in 1977

  • There’s a great deal of discussion about how the end of the Apollo program has caused America to fall behind in world leadership. Mind you, this is the late 1970s, so as much as I know it must have seemed that way at the time, it is fucking unfathomable from today’s perspective.

  • The Spy Who Loved Me asks, and Capricorn One delivers: “When does Allen Funt come out and tell us we’re on Candid Camera?”

  • Woodward and Bernstein get mentioned in the same sentence as Patty Hearst by Caulfield’s boss (David Doyle) who is a one-scene wonder if there ever was one.

Additional Notes

  • When astronaut Brubaker (Brolin) is presumed dead, his wife (Brenda Vaccaro) goes days without telling their children; maybe not until his memorial service. It’s only a movie, but it’s nevertheless amazing to me the lengths Americans go to avoid exposing their children to the very idea of tragedy.

  • There’s one major fuck-up in this movie, and it’s a weird one. Caulfield travels to Flat Rock, Arizona thinking it will lead to a clue, gets shot at by an unseen person followed by the sound of a car driving away, and appears back in Houston, all in the space of a single day (which is impossible), to no real purpose. It’s all the more bizarre for being in a film that is otherwise so tight and controlled.

  • I am aware of the irony of a conspiracy thriller prominently featuring O.J. Simpson.

How Did It Do?
Capricorn One was released December 17, 1977 in Japan. It would have to wait until 1978 for a US release, and even then was postponed until June to avoid competing with Richard Donner’s Superman. When it did come out, however, it did very well. I’m told it was the most successful independent movie of the year. I’m told that, but can’t be sure, because I couldn’t find any box-office receipts. I hope it did well.

It also did reasonably well with critics, with 61% on RottenTomatoes. Not that great, but pretty well. Criticisms of the movie are pretty diverse, so much so that I can’t really summarize them. It’s pretty much just a matter of personal taste.

In his excellent, short-lived series Laser Age, critic Keith Phipps called Capricorn One “a dumb movie made by smart people,” which seems just about perfect.

Next Time: The Gauntlet

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