Capricorn One

I need to make myself a headband!
Released:
1978

Director: Peter Hyams

Starring: James Brolin, Elliott Gould, Brenda Vaccaro, OJ Simpson, Hal Holbrook

The Setup:

The government’s trying to cover up the fact that the Capricorn One mission… never happened.

Discussion:

A friend wrote me and asked “WHY is Capricorn One not on your site?” and, frankly, I could offer no answer, as I’ve generally wanted to see this movie since it came out. And now—a childhood dream realized!

We open with these importance-packed red credits as we hear a hysterically urgent score, cluing us in to the vital importance [to democracy!] of what we’re about to witness. We then open with sunrise on the launch pad [actually, we find out, a sunset run backwards], as we hear the soon-to-be-familiar voice of Paul Cunningham of Capricorn Control, this movie’s all-purpose expository device. Cunningham comes on via voice-over seemingly at the start of every scene, and lets us know all the little facts about the mission that haven’t been acted out in the screenplay. You will be amazed at the amount of times this guy comes on—I truly wish I had counted. I swear he has more lines than the three stars put together.

So first we have some character-setting scenes, very much like at the beginning of a disaster movie, and then it’s on to the launch. The guys get in the space capsule, then are abruptly called out just before launch, to their bewilderment. The ship takes off without them, and apparently no one in the entire control room notices that they’ve lost contact with the crew from that point on. The crew is put on a plane and flown to an undisclosed location.

Who’s our crew? I thought you’d never ask. They consist of James Brolin, who is rocking the Ken doll hair of 1975, and is clearly the alpha dog, OJ Simpson, the big dumb oaf who is given about as many lines as you would assign to a former pro football player, and Sam Waterson as the wacky jokester. Eventually Hal Holbrook, the go-to guy for smarmy corporate scum [though actually I went through the entire movie thinking he was Murray Hamilton!], comes in and delivers a LONG monologue about how the space program is low on funding, and if they have a failure, they’ll close down the space program, and it’s so vitally important for American children to dream and have hope—childhood dreams are apparently all intricately tied to the space program—and so they’re going to FAKE the mission [which wouldn’t have succeeded due to some irreparable malfunction] and just PRETEND the guys went to Mars. The astronauts are then shown to a large, unconvincing stage set made up to look like Mars, where they will film their Mars-walk scenes. But these honest, upstanding astronauts cannot deceive the American people like that! They refuse—at which point Jim [that’s Holbrook] informs them that if they don’t, their wives and kids will be killed. Only he’s all pretend-sorry about it, wailing “There’s a device… it’s out of my hands!”

Cut to Elliott Gould as Caulfield, some reporter who rails on about preserving individuality, then meets Karen Black, frighteningly skinny and bizarre as ever, as this rich socialite who takes up Caulfield and flirts with him. I honestly don’t even know what purpose her character plays in the movie, but I’m not complaining. We’ll come back to Caulfield.

So now it’s time for the crew to communicate with Earth from space—which they’re going to fake from their capsule in Arizona or whatever. The wives are brought in—including Brenda Vaccaro as Brolin’s wife [he’s Brubaker, or “Bru,” but let’s just call him Brolin]. They talk, and it seems that Bru sends a clue to Brenda [Bru’s Clues!] while talking about vacations, then Brenda reads a poem written by their son about how very proud he is of his astronaut daddy, specially meant to wring maximum irony out of the fact that his daddy isn’t a hero at all—he’s a pansy-ass, tiny-dicked government STOOGE! Then Bru and Brenda exchange some emotional interpersonal drama and it’s like—hello? Don’t air your dirty laundry on worldwide TV, okay? Let’s have some discretion. Soon after this we have the simulated Mars walk, wherein the nefarious government uses high-tech slow-motion to simulate the reduced gravity of the Martian atmosphere! Oh, how does the innocent public stand a chance?

But! Some console jockey at NASA has noticed some strange readings—it seems that the signal from Capricorn One is coming from only 300 miles away, not thousands of miles away, where Mars is located. In fact, the call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE! No, that doesn’t happen, although it would have been awesome. He tells one guy and is told that his console must be defective because it's running Windows Vista, and it’ll be taken out and shot. Turns out this guy is friends with Caulfield, and spills his guts about the errant findings and the reception he got. Later he reports the same findings to Holbrook, and gets the same response about Windows Vista. Then, when Caulfield goes over to visit, his friend is gone, and some other woman is living in his apartment, with papers showing she’s been living there for months. His friend has been ERADICATED. A few minutes later, Caulfield has a little problem with his brakes, causing him to drive at breakneck speed all through the city, until he flies off a bridge. He lives. I guess the evil operatives not only cut his brakes but modified his accelerator, as Caulfield keeps picking up speed, which most people without brakes are not wont to do. Or maybe Caulfield is just fucking dumb.

SPOILERS > > >
So it’s time for the astronauts to come back, and they’re being flown to the splashdown site, where they will get into the capsule and pretend to have just gotten back. While they’re on the plane, however, NASA says they burned up on re-entry, and Holbrook makes another endless speech about how it’s a tragedy but the space program must go on because how else will children dream, etc. His naked emotional response is supposed to be deeply ironic, since we know it’s all an act. You know, career-wide, how many lives have to be laid at Hal Holbrook ’s feet? I think that’s not an importune question.

Anyway, this is about the point at which Brolin suddenly turns into the ideal hero of the 70s, ready to face anything and knowing exactly what to do in every situation. With Ken hair. He figures out IMMEDIATELY that NASA has killed them off, and urges the guys to take off before they get the gas. I have to LOVE the 70s where the prisoners, whose security is vitally important to the maintenance of this high-level government conspiracy, are held behind a mere locked door that they simply pry the hinges off of and easily escape. Nowadays they’d have to rig some gizmo to decode the electronic password and maybe do some yoga to avoid laser sensors and whatnot, but this approach is better: they just get right out, and get right to the action, and we don’t have to waste time on a boring elaborate escape.

They commandeer the nearest available jet and take off! Then they notice that they have no fuel—a fact that jokester Paul is rather glib about—and crash in the desert! They realize that they have to split up, and each of them walk toward different points on the compass. By this point Brolin has carried his hero routine to the point where he’s just a bossy, smug asshole. Of course, this is probably because OJ and Paul are presented as total retards.

But what of Brolin’s wife, searingly portrayed by Brenda Vaccaro? She’s husking her way through a GODDAMNED LONG scene in which she’s reading a fucking insane kids book [miles of ludicrous nonsense rhymes] while keeping her emotions at bay! She is strong! She will survive! She knows that the heart will go on! Eventually Gould comes over and asks her about the message Brolin sent her by mis-identifying the vacation spot [which Vaccaro doesn’t pick up on, being a silly, emotional woman]. He instead said that they went to a place where a movie was being shot, and marveled at how something so fake could be made to look so real on TV. Caulfield suspects foul play!

Now—back to BROLIN. You know we’re going into Rambo-esque survival mode as Brolin cuts his pants to fashion himself a headband! He then starts singing “Everybody’s Working For the Weekend.” Meanwhile, OJ is babbling incoherently to himself as he wanders through the desert, his lips cracked and swollen. Somehow it all has added resonance, given what we know about his later history, although I couldn’t say what. Peter, also presented as a simpleton, is telling jokes to himself as he tries to climb a cliff. I was really hoping he would slip and fall off, but no, the helicopters of the bad guys come and get him, just like they got OJ. He sends up a flare, just like OJ did, to signal that he’s been caught. But of course he was, as he is not James Brolin. Listen to me, you do not fuck with James Brolin.

Meanwhile, Tom Doyle appears out of the blue as Caulfield’s boss, and only has this one scene, but my, my what a doozy he makes of it. He has this long [listen to me: LONG] speech that is here for no other reason to give Tom Doyle a long speech and provide another wacky character, but you know, you have to look fondly on the days where movies positioned interesting characters as of equal value to massive action setpieces. Anyway, cops plant cocaine on Caulfield, Karen Black [oh that’s right, SHE’S in this movie!] bails him out, then delivers a bizarre flirty speech [that doesn’t really belong in this movie] about how he might “jump” her. But let’s get back to Brolin, and how he is more of a man than you or I will ever be.

So it was about the time the helicopters passed over a mound of dirt that was revealed to be BROLIN [with headband] that I realized that this movie hails from a time when a popular sense of [or delusion of] pride was that if worst came to worst, if there was a government conspiracy or a nuclear attack or an alien apocalypse or whatnot, you could take to the wilderness and SURVIVE. You could suckle moisture from cactus flowers and devise traps for skinks and sleep in caves. Not that any of that happens in this movie, but you know what I mean. It also occurred to me that if it’s the 70s, and you’re in the desert, there IS a rattlesnake. The movie was wearing on long enough I began to think maybe there wouldn't be a rattlesnake, but then Brolin hides from the helicopters in a cave and… right on schedule. He’s such a man that he wraps one hand in cloth and lets the snake bite it, while he bashes the thing with a rock. Then… well that thing sure does look tasty, don’t it? Perhaps over a bed of risotto with a spicy remoulade? But not BROLIN—he eats it RAW! Like a MAN! RRRRAAWWWRRR!!!

Oh, he lets scorpions crawl on his eyelids, too.

Meanwhile, Caulfield has decamped to the desert, where he meets… TELLY SAVALAS! He’s a biplane owner and crop-duster for-hire who gives a LONG speech meant to make him a colorful character, before agreeing to fly Caulfield over the desert to look for Brolin. Blah, blah, it’s almost the brown helicopters for Brolin when they swoop down and he jumps on the wing, leading into the long, and pretty exciting, biplane-vs-helicopter chase through the canyons and valleys of the desert, accented by the comedy stylings of Gould & Savalas. I think with a little ingenuity the chase could have been off-the-chart awesome had it been biplane-vs-helicopter-vs-Great White Shark, but you can’t have everything. During this chase, you may suddenly realize that Brolin is just a doll they strapped to the wing of the plane, and from that point you’re just looking at this plane with a dummy strapped to it, but the swoops and dips of the whole thing keep it pretty cool. Then it dawns on you—“Oh, I bet you ten dollars Brolin shows up at his own memorial service.”

You probably have that sense because the memorial service has already started, and although it seems like Brolin is 200 miles due west, he still makes it just in time! As Gould and Brolin run toward the service, the film slows, and slows, to the point where it’s kind of a frame-by-frame thing, and past the point where it starts to look a little ridiculous. To say the least. Then the film makes the strange decision to freeze-frame on an expression Brolin is making that looks as though he really has to go—no, REALLY has to go—and that’s it. I’m kicking myself for not pulling this frame out to show you, but I just plumb forgot. Dang it all!
< < < SPOILERS END

It’s hard to exactly say it’s pretty good, but for what it is—a bloated 70s pop-paranoia action epic—it’s a good time with all the requisite trimmings. There’s a little thing in the “production notes” on the disc that says writer/director Hyams originally couldn’t sell the script, because no one liked this government conspiracy guff, but then Watergate happened and suddenly it didn’t seem so far-fetched, and this gives us leave to reflect on how soon after [and since], it became just EXPECTED that of course the government was corrupt and hiding vital information and trying to deceive the public. And then some unspecified time after that this cynicism became so prevalent that even politicians seem to consider it part of the job to be corrupt and deceitful, which leads directly into the era of George W. Bush and our current political atmosphere. Thanks, Nixon!

I sort of liked the whole ethos of this movie that colorful characters are as entertaining as grand action sequences, and it works overtime to make sure that everyone get their little moment of focus. That noted, it is then a little glaring how egregiously the movie makes blank little sidekick characters out of OJ and Waterson. I guess they just didn’t want them to take away from Brolin’s rugged manly glow, but since everyone else gets a showcase moment… Other than that, it’s got all the car chases, paranoid reporters, government conspiracies, space program, rattlesnakes, Karen Black and helicopters you expect from your top-of-the-line 70s action entertainment, and if that’s what you’re after, you should totally go for it.

Should you watch it?

Sure! It’s fun and wonderfully 70s.

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