Capricorn One

Synopsis: Mankind’s greatest achievement… or mankind’s biggest hoax?

It was suppose to be the crowning moment in the history of space travel. But when the first manned flight to Mars is deemed unsafe and scrubbed on the launch pad, anxious authorities must scramble to save face and retain their funding – and so an unthinkable plot to fake the mission is hatched. Only an intrepid journalist stands in the way of the cover-up, but the powers that be will stop at nothing to keep their secret from going public.

Director Peter Hyams (2010, Outland) helms this conspiracy thriller with an all-star cast, including Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Karen Black and Telly Savalas.

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Capricorn One 7.25

eyelights: its core concept. its staging. its cast.
eyesores: Elliott Gould’s performance. its editing. its many implausibilities.

“Hey, Dr. Kelloway. Funny thing happened on the way to Mars”

Did they, or didn’t they?

That’s been the question on many people’s lips ever since the Apollo 11 lunar landing was broadcast “live” on television in 1969. Some want to believe, others are on the fence, and the rest think it was faked.

Taken to extremes, some are conspiracy theorists who go so far as to claim that Stanley Kubrick was hired to shoot the footage for the U.S. government. We may never know the truth, but we can imagine.

That’s what Peter Hyams did with his 1977 blockbuster thriller, ‘Capricorn One’, which he first started writing right after the Apollo 11 mission. He decided to lay bare a similar conspiracy for audiences.

However, for greater creative license, he decided to change up some of the details, such as the name and destination of the mission – in this case, not Apollo 11 and the moon, but Capricorn One and Mars.

Then he set about to show how he thought such a ploy could unfold.

The picture has two leads, astronaut Charles Brubaker and journalist Robert Caulfield. While one is caught on the inside, trying to get out, the other is investigating clues on the outside, trying to get in.

Having two leads serves a purpose narratively: inevitably, Brubaker and his crew have very little to do initially, while trapped in a government facility, so Caulfield’s investigations add a little spark.

Since we already know the answers that Caulfield seeks, Hyams decided to perk things up by putting his life in danger; it is, after all, a grand conspiracy and his snooping risks revealing the truth to the world.

So the first act sets up the conspiracy and introduces us to Caulfield, the second act focuses on the investigation, and then the third act is when the picture revs up, as both leads fight for their lives.

The whole story takes place over the course of nine months; given that the distance to Mars is much greater than the moon, the mission is significantly longer. This gives Caulfield ample time to investigate.

My biggest problem with the picture is the fact that it’s stretched over so much time: Caulfield becomes a threat early on, but there are long stretches during which the authorities and their operatives do nothing.

Even after making their first attempt on his life, they fold back into the shadows for months afterwards instead of finishing him off the moment he’s distracted. It seems unlikely since he can easily expose them.

Personally, I wouldn’t leave that loose end untied.

Further to that, Caulfield is pretty laidback for a guy who’s seeing people disappear around him and who’s barely avoided a violent end. I’d be super paranoid, going underground and watching over my shoulder.

But this guy carries on as though all were normal.

Frankly, I really disliked Caulfield – both for being such a clueless putz, but also because Elliott Gould plays him awkward and slightly Novocained. It was hard to have any confidence in this walking lump of clay.

The worst of it was his interview of Brubaker’s spouse: Gould’s delivery was so clunky that I wasn’t sure if the problem was the script, the editing, or him. It was as though he had never talked to someone before.

It looked like he still had his training wheels on.

Thankfully, James Brolin was slightly better as Brubaker. He’s no great presence, but he has enough charisma to carry himself through, and he has enough of that essential alpha male energy to support his arc.

Of course, it probably helps that he’s saddled with a meek Sam Waterston and a vacuous O.J. Simpson as his sidekicks Peter Willis and John Walker. In contrast to them, Brolin lit up the skies with star power.

Probably the best of the lot was Hal Holbrook, as Dr. James Kelloway, the head of NASA, and a friend of Brubaker’s. Holbrook lends the character enough intensity and sharpness for him to feel threatening.

The third act is the most exciting but also the most half-baked: it finds Caulfield at the end of his investigation, having discovered the location of the makeshift television studio used for the set-up.

It makes no sense at all because the place is unlocked, deserted; there’s not even any sign of security. And yet they left the stage there for anyone to find. Um… either you dismantle everything or you lock it up.

Worst. Conspirators. Ever.

Meanwhile, Brubaker, Willis and Walker are walking through a canyon in broad daylight, trying to escape the authorities; at no point do they use the cover of darkness to hide themselves. Obviously some get caught.

Worst. Survival. Instincts. Ever.

All told, ‘Capricorn One’ is a classic Hollywood blockbuster thriller, intended to white-knuckle its audience all the way through with little regard for logic; it can be a little bit sloppy in its construction.

But it’s a fun ride and it presents an enticing concept; conspiracies press a number of our buttons, such as curiosity and fear. That it’s deeply rooted in a historical event adds an allure that is hard to ignore.

‘Capricorn One’ would be Hyams’ first big hit. It propelled his career to such a degree that he was eventually picked to helm the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘, ‘2010‘, just a half decade later.

Apollo 11. Stanley Kubrick. Peter Hyams.

Hmmm…. interesting connection, no?

Date of viewing: April 6, 2017

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5 responses to “Capricorn One

  1. Whatever it’s flaws this is a good film and can bring out anger. I think this because it could easily be real.

    • Agreed. It taps into a then-growing distrust of government, post-Watergate. This kind of conspiracy stuff is common these days, but it was still very new then.

      • I can imagine it was and at the time very underground I expect. Some of these theorists can’t believe the film got made as it’s so close to home. But in reality let’s face it… If that’s what did happen the film wouldn’t have been made. 😊

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