Conspiracies, bureaucracies and cover-ups - a tale of Watergate, NASA and political evil.
Writer/Director: Peter Hyams
“He sat there two months ago and put his feet up on Woodrow Wilson's desk, and he said, "Jim. Make it good. Congress is on my back. They're looking for a reason to cancel the program. We can't afford another screw-up. Make it good. You have my every good wish." His every good wish!” Dr. James Kelloway, played by Hal Holbrook(1)
Release: Warner Brothers, 1978
Score: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Telly Savalas
As the moment of takeoff approaches for America’s First Mission to Mars the crew of 3 astronauts are ordered to the ground by a mysterious man wearing a black suit. Their mission is a lie, and after being flown to an Arizona airbase the crew find themselves manipulated into performing a show - a faked mission in a warehouse mock-up of the Red Planet – in a frantic attempt to save NASA’s funding from disaster.
When a NASA employee vanishes without trace, his life erased, and the astronauts deaths are announced to the world things begin to spiral. With an investigative reporter chasing the story back in civilisation, the astronauts find
themselves stranded in the desert around a downed jet, running from black helicopters that gather in the skies.
“Over the years, the space shuttle program has changed its organizational structure due to outside forces… They emphasized effectiveness and efficiency. Essentially they emphasized cost and schedule and things like that… And de-emphasized good engineering and research and development and safety.
The board felt that in order to understand this accident that you have to understand the history of the shuttle. The board felt very strongly that this … was not a random anomalous event. This accident, when you put it in the context of the shuttle's history, fits into a plot that's predictable.” Admiral Hal Gehman, Chair of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board(2).
It was 1978, the year I was born; Capricorn One emerged in the shadow of ’77’s massive SF blockbusters: Lucas’s Star Wars and Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Carter was in the White House; Callaghan was in No 10. Capricorn One was already something of a relic, a little too slow and thoughtful for a modern SF blockbuster - the classic years for intelligent thrillers in the early 70’s (The French Connection, Klute, Marathon Man, Deliverance, Chinatown) were over… A huge rubber shark had lunged onto a little fishing boat and failed to eat Richard Dreyfuss, but managed to eat Francis Ford Coppola instead. When Rocky beat All The Presidents Men for Best Picture Oscar in ‘76, the writing was on the wall for the generation affectionately called the Movie Brats; the last years of their efforts, before they were finally killed off by the staggering failure of Heaven’s Gate, have been mostly forgotten.
Politically, America was still living in the shadow of a bungled hotel burglary in ’72 and the resulting impeachment proceedings. This, and the counter culture generation, led to a rash of highly paranoid movies (The Conversation, All The President’s Men, Soylent Green) and a deep cynicism when it came to government. For NASA, funding cuts were bringing an end to the golden age of American space exploration: Voyager 2 had been launched the year before and was on its way towards the outer Solar System, the Viking Missions had been rousing successes on Mars, Skylab was sitting in orbit embarrassing the Russians and the old Saturn rockets had yet to be replaced by the new and exciting Space Shuttle Program.
In science fiction and thriller scriptwriter/director Peter Hyams’s 40 year career, Capricorn One was probably the high point. Coming after crime/spy thrillers Busting and Telefon he got a chance to film a script he had written several years before. With Elliot Gould wielding the star power best seen in his Robert Altman movies, O.J. Simpson among the greatest football players and wooden actors of his generation and the wise cracking Telly Savalas hamming it up, Capricorn One was brimming with acting talent. Jerry Goldsmith was on fire as the best score writer in the business, the movie had a substantial budget to play with and a number of memorable chase sequences. Suffice to say, Capricorn One performed reasonably well at the box office.
To someone of the time, Capricorn One was barely science fiction. The Government lies to you as a matter of course, Apollo 17’s lunar landing in ’72 was still a vivid memory and a manned mission to Mars was the obvious next step for America. Space was mankind’s territory.
“For whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product - to the point of fantasy…
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations… For nature cannot be fooled.” Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman serving on the Rogers Commission into the Challenger Disaster(3)
Capricorn One is wonderful. It’s not Citizen Kane, or even 2001, it isn’t that sort of film; but behind every scene there is a brooding and paranoid intelligence. In the hands of the Movie Brats films had subtlety, taking an emotional investment we find unfamiliar today: It takes us 8 minutes of film before we see the leads faces, and 11 minutes before they are truly introduced. Instead we are presented with shots of a launch pad and a conversation between politicians. There are many lovely touches, the script is razor sharp with everyone getting their own scene (check out Elliot Gould’s reporter's conversation with his editor boss, it positively sings), the action is excellent; you have to love the helicopter/biplane chase. And when it comes to NASA’s budget obsessed corruption, I think Peter Hyams had their number from the first shot of the film.
History has been unkind to Capricorn One, either it is forgotten, or it is cited as "evidence" by that strange breed of internet wacko who denies Apollo ever happened. Bart Sibrel, a classic example of the type, made a career out it, from getting punched in the face by a septegenarian Buzz Aldrin(4) (or watch the punch(5)) to naming his documentary after a misquote from the film "A funny thing happened on the way to The Moon". Capricorn One deserves better.
The guts of Capricorn One is Hal Holbrook's villain, the NASA administrator - this film is about Watergate and bureaucracy; need evidence? Holbrook played Deep Throat in All The President’s Men, the hero is a young unorthodox investigative reporter, Woodward and Bernstein are namedropped in a conversation about good journalism; Watergate, Watergate, Watergate. Hyams uses Holbrook’s character to make a film about one kind of political evil. Political Evil: the process that allows CIA assistance of Pinochet’s ’73 putsch in Chile, but leaves barely a stain on Nixon’s character (he’d get plenty more, but this one barely stuck), Stalin’s murderous five year plans, the firebombing of Dresden. If anything deserves to be called Evil, it is this - crimes that can only be committed by sane, rational, even reasonable, people - crimes that never stick to the bottom because they were only following orders, and never stick to the top because they didn’t know the details. Crimes that don’t stick, not even to John Negroponte and G. Gordon Liddy.
As the film progresses Hal Holbrook’s character goes through a moral descent; at first he appears to be acting altruistically, and before using any leverage he gives a long speech desperately trying to persuade the astronauts to get on board for the good of the project. It’s only when they back him into a corner that he ineptly blackmails them. But the political narrative becomes set, to the world the astronauts are on the rocket. Holbrook is gradually hemmed in more and more by events, until he has no option but to remove them and the dangerous reporter. By never getting his hands dirty he manages to maintain his composure and personal morality. The scene where he consoles Brenda Vaccaro, the astronaut's wife, is chilling. There is no cartoon demon here, he was honestly going to fly them back to their families, until in classic NASA fashion, the technology fails. The real villain played here is The President, always offscreen and never giving sufficient responses, everything that happens is a result of the line I chose for the top quote of this essay, but none of it can be tied to him because he has made it clear that he doesn’t want to know.
When the leader chooses ignorance, but makes it clear that they have the power, is a very dangerous time. I haven’t studied the topic, but having visited Auschwitz and read If This Is A Man, I have long suspected that Hitler never directly ordered The Final Solution (I don't think anyone gets up in the morning and decides to order 11 million deaths, it's part of a chain of events); that he simply went to Himmler and Eichmann and made it clear the Jews no longer fit his story for where Germany and Europe were going. Then once it was set up it added flexibility to the system, allowing similar problems to vanish. Political evil happens when you establish a political narrative and it becomes more important than the facts (for example, Saddam Hussain having weapons of mass destruction), until the facts must be changed to fit the story. To my mind, this may be
why politicians who use the big lie technique, such as Hitler, Oswald Moseley and Joe McCarthy, are so dangerous (rather than them being mentally ill or storybook evil); because once their narrative becomes the dominant one of the time then reality becomes secondary. Set the wheels in motion and institutionalised bureaucrats can be pushed to do pretty much anything, it’s the way humans are. This is political evil.
This film also says a lot about NASA, with its deeply cynical tone and emphasis on bureaucrats. Concieved in the shadow of the Soviet missile gap, its purpose has always been cloudy, and the turgid effects of budget squabbling have lain heavy on it since Apollo 11 finished the primary goal of the organisation's first decade. By the time this film was made there had already been accidents, Apollos 1 and 13, but nothing to compare to what was to come with the Shuttle.
I haven’t trusted the organization since reading Feynman’s book discussing (amongst his many stories) his key role in determining the cause of the Challenger disaster: What do you care what other people think?. You create a government department, under the auspices of science but which is actually a mixed bag of motivations, from international public relations to pork barrelling, and you are going to find it difficult to justify your stratospheric funding. Go several years down the line and you have an organization hanging on by it’s fingernails. To my eye, NASA has been the single biggest resistance to human space exploration in the West of the past 30 years, because they have always had incumbency. How do you compete with billions of tax dollars when you are considering satellite repair/launch as a business line?
I find it deeply, deeply depressing that so little has been made of The X Prize in the general media. There has been no movie made about it, there isn’t even an official biography of Burt Rutan; why? Because everyone thinks it's already been done by NASA. The pathetic, clunky, Winnebago of the skies that is The Shuttle, and people pay no attention to the first genuinely practical space program of the private sector. In Capricorn One Hyams showed insights into all of this; there is a strong undertone that the only purpose of NASA is to continue the existence of NASA. It also sent a cold shiver down my spine when I realized the cover-up/mission failed in this movie because of the detaching of the heat shield on re-entry, exactly the cause of the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.
Hyams never quite made it into the big league of cinema, following this with the less inventive but solid Outland, a High Noon remake set on a Jovian moon with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role. Not a bad film, but nothing special. Then he went on to make the flawed but well crafted 2010; a similar attempt at intelligent, political, science fiction but burdened by the terrific weight of Kubrick's original, a job best not attempted. His decline then accelerated towards high concept trash in the 80s and 90s (Timecop, The Relic and End Of Days), his films no longer even notably intelligent.
Capricorn One is no masterpiece, it’s probably not even all that good, but it has a vividness and an insight to it that hundreds of more artistic movies lack. It is certainly food for thought, and a fascinating slice of the 1970’s. If you liked it once and haven’t seen it in 20 or 30 years, go and watch it again. It’s worth it, even if it's just for Elliot Gould saying:
"Look, when a reporter tells his assignment editor that he thinks he may be on to something that could be really big, the assignment editor is supposed to say: "You've got forty eight hours, kid, and you better come up with something good or it's going to be your neck!" That's what he's supposed to say, I saw it in a movie".