Can there be a story line that is any more 70s than one involving a plot by NASA to fake a landing on Mars? Folks were into conspiracy theories full barrels by the time 1978's CAPRICORN ONE was released, and unsurprisingly the movie was a hit. Even before the Internet, folks were spreading their paranoia like a virus among the like minded and perhaps the easily persuaded via literature and phone chains. Ranting in bars and coffee shops. Now, I'm not completely dismissing the idea that the decision makers in D.C. would engineer such a scam or cover up a disaster. In fact, the greyer I get the more it makes sense.
CAPRICORN ONE, unlike other conspirist flicks, is fairly lighthearted. The ominous tone found in films like THE PARALLAX VIEW is almost completely absent in writer/director Peter Hyam's film. His approach is decidedly popcorn, with events becoming more and more absurd before a finale that leaves us bickering over what would happen next. The movie does not try to be overly serious, to really ponder the weight of its scenario, even when bad things happen.
Astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are on the launchpad about to lift off for their mission. At the last moment they are sneaked out of the spacecraft and whisked away to a closed Air Force base in the middle of the desert by a NASA employee. An empty Capricorn One vessel does indeed proceed with the launch, with the American public, including the President and V.P., unaware of what's happened. NASA rep Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) meets with the trio to explain why such an elaborate hoax is being perpetuated. It's a speech delivered with riveting conviction by a world class actor, and one of the most suspenseful scenes in the movie. Never mind that Kelloway's explanation is filled with as many holes as Hyams' script. Don't probe it too hard.
Journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) begins to suspect wrongdoing after his NASA friend Eliott (Robert Walden), a technician who questions his superiors as to why mission control receives transmissions from Capricorn One before its telemetry arrives, goes missing. Eliot's entire apartment suddenly shows no trace that he ever lived there, in fact. Caulfield becomes a junior Woodward/Bernstein and slowly figures out the scam, weathering assorted crises like being shot at and having the brakes on his car tampered with.
The astronauts play along with the facade (after having their families' lives threatened) for a time. But then Capricorn One burns up upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. Uh oh....
All of the elements are there for a shadowy, downbeat thriller. But any time CAPRICORN ONE feels as if it will go in that direction, a moment of great silliness will remind us what were watching. Hyams, always fond of shooting chase scenes, undercranks the camera to a point that makes Caulfield's runaway sedan look like something in a sped up silent movie. It becomes comical rather than frightening. Or when David Doyle, playing Caulfield's skeptical editor, has a rat-a-tat with his employee that is straight out of 1930s screwball. Or those two helicopters that scour the desert to locate the runaway would-be spacemen; at one point they face each other like enraptured lovers and fly in perfect parallel formation. And soon after, a caustic Telly Savalas shows up as a crop duster pilot, entirely cementing the film's fate as something to amuse rather than provoke thought or put our stomachs in knots.
And that's fine. Hyams' film is great fun. A fast moving time waster that builds suspense in that old fashioned Republic serial way. There are just enough sinister elements to satisfy those who enjoy such (far from airtight) plots but this is mainly pop. The wildly diverse cast is in good form, though the less said about O.J.'s acting, the better.