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1968 saw the release of two landmark Sci-Fi films, Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Almost completely lost in the excitement was the relatively low-key Countdown, a realistic and competent moon landing story filmed in a semi-documentary vein. Although the method of landing an astronaut on the moon a year later was much different, the plan shown here is one of several alternates actually considered by N.A.S.A. Countdown is director Robert Altman's first real studio directing assignment, and although he hasn't yet been set free to exercise his personal style the film's natural acting and ensemble vibe is very much in the Altman mode. Future collaborators Robert Duvall, Barbara Baxley and Michael Murphy are present, forming the vanguard of Altman's soon-to-be acting stock company.
Tensions and rivalries within N.A.S.A. flare up when politics interferes with the planned moon mission. Top pick astronaut Chiz (Robert Duvall) has been preparing to pilot "Pilgrim", a one-man moon mission with the aim of beating the Russians to the lunar surface; bureaucratic panic sets in when Moscow announces that their cosmonauts are on the way. To downplay the Cold War rivalry, Washington determines that the first American on the moon must be a civilian, and backup trainee Lee Stegler (James Caan) gets the nod. Chiz rebels and then does everything he can to disqualify his friend. Tempers run high between flight director Ross Duellan (Steve Ihnat) and space doctor Gus (Charles Aidman). Lee purposely downplays the danger to his wife Mickey (Joanna Moore), hiding the fact that N.A.S.A. has committed to the equivalent of a desperate 4th-down play -- the risks are off the scale.
The space vehicle is a Gemini capsule modified into a landing craft by grafting on the lower half of a LEM module. An unmanned flight has already landed a habitat capsule on the moon; Lee will have to find this 'moon lifeboat' and live in it alone for months until relieved by a subsequent (Apollo-style?) mission. As the Pilgrim flight commences, Moscow has still not reported that their moon shot has been successful. All is going well on our spacecraft when an electrical fault makes radio contact with the ground unreliable. Lee is supposed to abort the mission if he can't see the habitat's beacon from orbit ... yet he begins his landing sequence uncertain whether he's seen it or not.
I don't remember any serious Hollywood depictions of the Space Race made before Altman's picture. Space movies were either silly comedies (Way, Way Out) or fantastic Sci-Fi stories unrelated to our actual moon program. 1983 brought the nostalgic The Right Stuff, an inspirational epic that wasn't well received. Much later, Ron Howard's Apollo 13 scored big with an account of a near-disaster that had barely been reported back in 1973. The only other realistic space movie made near the real moon landing is the ludicrous Marooned, a show infamous for depicting professional astronauts as pain-in-the-ass crybabies. Pilots screened for risky missions may be boors or egomaniacs, but to a man they exhibit incredible calm in the midst of chaos. If one were dying for lack of oxygen, it's likely he'd show little emotion and volunteer to document the experience for the benefit of "the next guy".
Countdown is a fine movie about the behavior of professionals in risky technical jobs. Robert Duvall and James Caan are highly trained slide-rule engineers and also competitive jockstrap macho types. Both are acutely aware that unseen politicians routinely prioritize other considerations above flight safety. "It might look bad" for a military flier to be the first on the moon so Chiz is sidelined; naturally he's furious. But it doesn't take long for Chiz to rejoin the team and give his buddy Lee the best backup he can. 1
Altman lets Caan and Duvall lock horns once or twice but tries to keep the rivalry from becoming a combo soap opera / pissing contest. Astronauts confab in suburban rec rooms and the space doctor Charles Aidman counsels Mickey Stegler in a Florida Marina. Viewers expecting space thrills need to know that the strongest scenes in Countdown involve office clashes, with (the excellent) Steve Ihnat juggling orders from Washington and the doctor protesting that the short prep time is insufficient to give astronaut Stegler a fair shot at success. Space wives in these movies often get short shrift as little more than nervous hand-wringers, waiting anxiously in the N.A.S.A. observation room. When things get dicey the booth's blinds are drawn and the speakers turned off. Always interested in women, Altman gives Barbara Baxley and Joanna Moore more screen time than the script allocates to their underwritten parts. Mickey Stegler takes it hard when she realizes that Lee has been under-reporting risk-related issues ... and then Charles Aidman's doc really steps over the line by inferring that Pilgrim is a suicide mission.
The movie appears to be filmed at real locations in Houston and Cape Kennedy. The trip to the moon seems especially suspenseful now after our (thankfully few) full-on disasters and near misses. When the tecchies discuss the need to cut down on the capsule's electrical usage, we're reminded of the critical tally of Amps in the later Apollo 13. Once on the moon (sorry for the spoiler, but all the promos and trailers, etc., give that away) Lee makes a startling discovery that clears up what happened to the Russian moon shot. His lonely, slow search for the moon habitat shelter doesn't deliver big thrills but is admirably realistic. If there's anything to complain about Countdown, it's that the conclusion builds to a peak of tension and then doesn't bother to let us see the final reactions of all those people we care about, waiting back on Earth.
Countdown remains interesting for its atypical view of the space program. The contemporary media stressed idealistic adventures in the stars but the movie reflects what the public could easily perceive for itself, that the moon program's prime function was to put the Soviet Union in its place. Washington tasked N.A.S.A with glorifying The American Way, and thanks to raw teamwork and skill, our space pioneers pulled it off. Altman's film gets it right when the Houston command team reason that Lee Stegler has ignored his orders and landed his craft without being certain that he's near his vital rendezvous with his 'moon lifeboat'. As somebody in the control room says, how could Lee possibly turn back after taking all those risks and flying that far? An explorer doesn't dedicate his entire life to a single quest only to go home because he might die. Lee instead takes the initiative and goes for broke.
When Countdown was shown on network TV in the early 70s, we suspected that it was because actor Ted Knight was in the movie; at the time he was a big star on TV's The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Knight initially plays N.A.S.A.'s public relations man Larson as a useless glad-hander. But Larson turns out to be a different kind of professional, demonstrating respectful restraint when the Pilgrim moon shot gets into serious trouble.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Countdown is a fine enhanced transfer of this Panavision picture, with good color. The budget is modest but the special effects used for the moon scenes hold up very well. The somewhat over-hyped trailer didn't get a chance to lure audiences because the movie only received a limited distribution, often showing up as the bottom of a double bill. James Caan and Robert Duvall were only marginally familiar faces at the time, from TV and a few westerns; they're now the film's biggest draw. After The Godfather, it's fun to see them switch places -- young Caan is the more passive nice guy and Duvall plays the aggressive hard-ass. I like to think of Duvall's character as a younger, hotshot version of the old ace astronaut in Deep Impact.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. In this respect Countdown may stretch things a bit, as I don't recall major complaints that most if not all of the first generations of astronauts were military pilots. And who cares what the Russkies thought, as their cosmonauts were warriors as well. In reality the Soviets tried and failed to stay neck-and-neck with us in the moon race, largely due to crippling setbacks and terrible accidents. The pluses and minuses of the space race competition are still open to debate.
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