Sunday, January 12, 2014

Countdown (1967)

Director: Robert Altman                                   Writers: Loring Mandel & Hank Searls
Film Score: Leonard Rosenman                       Cinematography: William W. Spencer
Starring: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Charles Aidman and Joanna Moore

In 1969, unknown to the United States, the Soviet Space program effectively ended with a massive explosion during a launch test. The loss of the vehicle wasn’t nearly as damaging to the program as was the destruction of the launch site and the U.S., who was ahead anyway, landed two men on the moon that year. But what if the explosion hadn’t happened, and what if the race had come down to the wire? Released a year before Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Altman’s Countdown examines that very premise. In that way it is not futuristic like Kubrick’s film, but a suspense story about a moon landing two years prior to NASA actually landing a man on the moon. It was based on the novel Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls, a minor writer who nevertheless wrote some very intelligent suspense novels like Overboard and Sounding as well as the novelizations of two of the Jaws sequels.

The story begins with a three-man Apollo crew, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Michael Murphy, preparing for a mission in a few months. When the news comes that the Russians have already orbited the moon--prior to Apollo 8--the space program pulls out an emergency plan to beat them. The program, named Pilgrim, sends a single man up in a Gemini capsule and lands him on the moon. And there he sits, until the first Apollo crew can come up and bring him back. The one snag is mostly due to public relations. The Russian crew is all civilian, and scientist James Caan is the only non-military astronaut in the program. Duvall is the natural choice, but his military background excludes him and Caan accepts the mission with a lot more zest than either his wife or Duvall would like. That’s nothing, however, compared to nervous flight physician Charles Aidman who is in an absolute panic because he thinks Caan is going to die.

While 2001 is concerned with things like long-distance flight, the mechanisms of space travel, and other science-fiction subjects, Countdown is almost exclusively concerned with the human element, the relationships between the major players and their psychological reactions to the mission. The archive film of the Gemini launches is good, but the special effects are nothing compared to Kubrick’s film. But then they don’t have to be as it’s a completely different type of story. Still, having some kind of sound effects in the capsule when boosters are firing and stages are separating would have added some much needed verisimilitude. The “moon” is a typical desert scape doubling for the inert satellite and the mission control is a very scaled down version of what we saw in Apollo 13. But again, that isn’t the film’s emphasis.

This was Robert Altman’s first feature film and while it is watchable, it is little more than that. The ending is incredibly abrupt, and that is another downside. The main draw is probably the actors, some big names but mostly people who would become associated with television rather than feature films: Michael Murphy, Charles Aidman and Ted Knight. There are, however, a couple of interesting items of trivia. Near the beginning when a technician comes out with a chart of the path of the Russian ship, he has the unmistakable voice of Walter Matthau. And during Caan’s flight, when there are some electrical problems, one of the technicians is none other than Mike Farrell from the TV show M*A*S*H interacting with Duvall from Altman’s filmed version. Ultimately the film is merely a curiosity, fascinating more for what it could have been rather than what it did. Countdown is definitely not for dedicated fans of space films but taken for what it is, a glorified TV movie, it doesn’t have to disappoint.

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