Film Stuff

Day 1: Capricorn One

I think I caught half of this film on TV a few years ago. I had a vague memory of two sinister helicopters chasing the good guys across an unforgiving desert. Plus a really cheesy ending where the sole survivor gate-crashes his own memorial service, holding his hand aloft in an Alan Shearer-like greeting. Watching it again, I think I made up the last part. Either that, or the film coincided with seeing Blackburn Rovers vs Coventry City at Highfield Road and I got a bit confused.

Dodgy memories notwithstanding, this was definitely a film I wanted to revisit. I love this kind of 70s conspiracy thriller; things like All the President’s Men and The Parallax View are all high on the list of favourites. There’s something about the struggle between the individual and the state/government/faceless corporation that fascinates and resonates, but also depresses in equal measure. There is an inevitability and a fatalism in most of these films which precludes a happy ending. Individual battles may be won, but ultimately the power of the (mostly) unknown enemy will prevail.

In this context, Capricorn One is a lighter take on the genre. Yes, people are killed, but they’re either a sad bachelor who has so few friends that NO-ONE notices when his life is completely erased from the records; or astronauts whose wives don’t get a speaking role, so they’re not really that important.

The main thrust of the story sees three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson) preparing for a first mission to mars. Unbeknownst to them, NASA has run out of money, and rather than cancelling the mission, they decide to fake it. Instead of launching off into space, the astronauts are whisked away and blackmailed into filming a fake mars landing. Disaster strikes upon re-entry when the empty capsule disintegrates. To all intents and purposes, the three astronauts are now dead and the powers that be are determined to keep them that way. They are pursued across the desert by a pair of bug-eyed helicopters, whose synchronised movements hint at the wider conspiracy at play.

These anthrophomorsised machines are the nearest this film gets to an entertaining villain. Their faceless pursuit begins to echo Westworld in all its unremitting glory. In a way, it deflects from the fact that it’s never made clear who is behind the whole thing – NASA is implicated pretty heftily, alongside some bent FBI agents. But apart from Hal Holbrook’s sleazy turncoat, there is only a vague sense of a higher authority pulling the strings. It doesn’t matter who the bad guys are; they’re just bad and out for blood.

It’s left to Elliot Gould as a shambling journalist to uncover the truth from a series of decidedly ropey clues. He enlists a crop-dusting pilot (played by Telly Savalas) for the final search and rescue operation, managing to save at least one of the beleaguered astronauts.

It’s an enjoyable and, in places, gripping story, even if it does stretch the bounds of credibility. It’s very much steeped in a post-Watergate paranoia, portraying a time where journalists were bastions of truth and integrity, and O.J. Simpson was embraced as an uncomplicated, all-American hero.

What raises the film is the authenticity of the dialogue. Apart from a couple of self-aware, Basil Exposition-style monologues (the characters virtually say “I AM NOW MAKING A SPEECH”), there are a number of quieter moments where conversations are mundane and utterly believable. When offered a gun for protection, both doomed pilots reject it in a brief exchange of friendly banter:

– “I’d shoot my foot”.
– “I’d shoot his foot”

It’s nicely underplayed and heightens the sense that these guys aren’t soldiers, or heroes, but Everyman trying to make the best of a raw deal.

Also wanted to see (if Netflix had the range): One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

Anagram: (Capricorn One)
Panic Coroner

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