Capricorn One (1978)
In the middle seventies, America was forced to come to terms with the failure of the Vietnam War and the political fallout of the Watergate Conspiracy. It was a difficult time for the nation both socially and psychologically and naturally this manifested itself in the films of the time. The unquestioning faith in the establishment was replaced with an air of cynicism and the rise of the anti-hero. The enemy was not just the Soviet Union but potentially the national government as it pursued its own agenda. So the conspiracy theory was born and became an integral part of Hollywood.
Peter Hyam’s 1978 sci-fi action thriller Capricorn One, set its sights high and dared to tackle the mother of all conspiracies. Reflecting a public wane in interest in the space program, the film postulated the idea of a fake mission to mars. Astronauts James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J Simpson are literally taken out of the launch vehicle just moments before lift-off and informed by the program director, Hal Holbrook, that there is a major technical fault. Rather than publically admit to failure and risk the cancellation of all NASA funding (and worldwide humiliation), the powers that be decide to fake the landing.
Our protagonists are reluctant to participate, but fear for their families so grudgingly agree. The empty spaceship goes to Mars and returns while the live landing is faked in a studio. However a mistake on re-entry results in the capsule burning up, leaving NASA and sinister government forces with three live astronauts that they no longer need. Sensing that something is wrong, the crew escape and go on the run. Their only possible help comes from a persistent journalist who smells a rat.
Capricorn One is an all-star production littered with the finest character actors of the time. The script is tight with dry, laconic dialogue of the type you seldom see these days. Profanity is sparse but used effectively; there is wit, cynicism and monologues of the best calibre. Hyam’s cleverly taps into the spirit of the decade and builds the tension. The final chase sequence between a crop duster bi-plane and two military helicopters is still jaw dropping to this day. Furthermore it is the real deal and not a load of CGI fakery. The drama is aided by a tense and powerful score by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith.
Hollywood is incapable of making films like Capricorn One at present. They too often jump the shark and lose any subtlety to become the likes of Eagle Eye or Enemy of the State. Noise and bluster replace clever dialogue and bombastic hedonists are preferred over likeable but flawed characters. Capricorn One is not perfect and has some plot holes that are best not dwelt upon (I.E Wouldn’t a Mars landing would require a lifting body as it has an atmosphere and not a lunar module style lander). But it has class acting, a sense of purpose and that gritty, to the point 70s approach to film making. So watch, enjoy and remember “Keep your God damn head down”.