Remembered today mainly as a bitter, post-Watergate conspiracy thriller, Peter Hyam's "Capricorn One" embraces its genre while simultaneously digging a bit deeper. Here's a film that wants not only to reflect the cynicism of its time, but also study it, openly wondering if the mood of the nation could truly be salvaged by heroic deeds, or would we only view those deeds with somber, questioning eyes, too?
The movie is a clever play on the beliefs of those moon landing conspiracy nutters - you know, the folks who, despite trivial things like "facts" and "evidence," swear the Apollo mission was all a big put-on. While writer/director Hyams originally conceived the idea for the story years earlier, it wouldn't be until Watergate that his notions would really gel; after all, with our leaders lying to us about everything else, why wouldn't they add the space race to the list?
Astronauts Brubaker (James Brolin), Willis (Sam Waterston), and Walker (O.J. Simpson) are set to be the first men on Mars, until, minutes away from lift-off, they're scrambled out of the capsule and taken into hiding. There, NASA bigwig James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) explains that they've had to scrub the mission due to faulty equipment. But such a setback would only worsen national morale, already at a dismal low, and the American people need something proud and courageous to lift up their spirits. By golly, a Mars landing will do the trick. So for the sake of the nation, Kelloway wants his astronauts to play along in faking the whole dang thing. Oh, and if they don't, their families will be killed.
The idea of NASA having a team of assassins on standby is quite a stretch, but Hyams keeps the threats vague enough to build the right sense of dread and paranoia without openly collapsing into ridiculousness. More importantly, however, is how the filmmaker addresses a different issue: by the mid-1970s, America hadn't just grown cynical, it had grown apathetic. Mere years after landing on the moon, the public was bored with space exploration itself.
"Capricorn One" toys with this, giving us an opening sequence in which the President is revealed to be too busy to attend the launch of the first rocket to another planet; the weaselly Vice President (James Karen) is sent in his stead, and he spends all his time ogling the female form. (Two more digs are made at this: during the faked Mars landing, the President's voice is heard only in the form of a prerecorded message that rambles with political shallowness; later, a NASA-connected Congressman, wonderfully played by David Huddleston, rightly predicts an important phone call will come not from the top, but from the veep.) Holbrook, for all his character's villainy, delivers a beautiful, angry monologue about American indifference toward the space race, and how the joys of Armstrong's first steps all too quickly devolved into petty arguments over funding and priorities.
After Kelloway's speech, Hyams takes us into some dark territory, as we watch the astronauts reluctantly go along with the hoax - and we chill to the ease at which the whole thing's pulled off. And despite the epic approach to the scam (spanning nearly a year, to semi-accurately match the time it would take to get there and back), the story flies by at a steady clip, giving us just enough of a hint at the enormity of the strain on the captive astronauts without bogging us down as well. The cast (even a pre-infamy Simpson, giving the finest performance of his big screen career) is uniformly excellent, and the characters are sharply defined in rewarding ways.
Interspersed with this story is a parallel plot featuring sourpuss reporter Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who slowly begins to uncover the conspiracy, stumbling into danger along the way as mysterious government agents attempt to silence him. His adventures keep things moving quite well, while Gould's knack for laid-back snark adds some much needed lightness to the proceedings.
At the one hour mark, the film takes a new turn as the astronauts finally escape (having realized that they're likely to be offed when it comes time to tie up the cover-up's loose ends). The trio end up lost in the desert with government killers on their trail, and Hyams makes the rest of his movie one long chase sequence, with the right blend of excitement and danger.
Things do go a bit off the rails in the final act, when Caulfield hires a wise-cracking cropduster (Telly Savalas) to help in his hunt; Savalas' comic relief comes out of nowhere and fits in with nothing (and why does he call everyone he meets a "pervert"?). Also not quite working is a clumsily melodramatic ending utilizing enough sappy slo-mo to make Peter Jackson blush. (The moderately upbeat ending, however schmaltzy, also hints at a change in the wind for Hollywood, and America - unlike previous conspiracy yarns, this one allowed the audience to leave the theater without feeling emotionally bruised, and the guarded optimism seen here can be seen as a purposeful step away from the decade's gloomier cinematic output.)
The finale isn't all a wash, however. There's a masterful action sequence involving a biplane and two helicopters, featuring terrific aerial stunts and eye-popping camerawork. Hyams also adds a clever touch in turning those helicopters into characters themselves; we never see the pilots, leaving the choppers to be symbolic villains whose mere appearance causes shivers.
"Capricorn One" would find Hyams at the dawn of a solid decade for him, as the 80s would see the filmmaker churn out such slick, underrated thrillers as "2010," "The Star Chamber," and "Narrow Margin." (Since then, he's helmed a string of clunkers including "Timecop," "End of Days," and "A Sound of Thunder," making his one of the most inconsistent careers around.) Here, he delicately balances many moods - dour yet energetic, a cold, quiet thriller and a big, loud actioner - that add up to a memorable exercise in the paranoia genre.
Originally released by Artisan ten long years ago in a barebones package, "Capricorn One" now gets the special edition treatment from Lionsgate.
Video & Audio
There's some expected grain and fuzziness to be found in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, partly a result of the film's age. Colors are slightly muted as well, although I seem to remember the film always having such a color scheme. Despite the flaws, it's still an improvement over the earlier disc's grimy, non-anamorphic transfer.
The original Dolby stereo soundtrack and a 5.1 mix are both offered. The surround track doesn't go overboard, keeping almost all of the action up front. (If rear speaker gimmicks were used, I didn't notice them, which may have been the point.) Dialogue comes through perfectly, as do the effects and Jerry Goldsmith's moody score. The original stereo track is softer but not any worse for the wear. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Hyams treats us to a terrific, if low key, commentary track, as he sits down to watch his film for the first time in thirty years. The filmmaker remains slightly amused at the movie's success, which adds some charm to his presentation.
"Flights of Fancy: The Politics and Paranoia of Capricorn One" (17:16; 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen) ignores making-of anecdotes (already covered by the commentary) and instead discusses the conspiracy politics of the story. Talking head interviews find Hyams, USC History chair Dr. Steven J. Ross, and Skeptic Magazine's Dr. Michael Shermer chatting about the mood of the nation (both then and now), the decline of the space program, and the silliness of moon landing conspiracies.
A scrappy print of the film's original, spoiler-heavy trailer (3:08; 2.35:1 flat letterbox) rounds out the set.
A slick, thoroughly involving time capsule from the dreary 70s, "Capricorn One" is a top notch thriller that finally gets the DVD attention it deserves. Highly Recommended.