Friday, July 24, 2009

Film Friday: Capricorn One (1978)

Some movies are cultural markers. They highlight the beginning, or end, of an era. Capricorn One, directed by Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010), is such a movie. Capricorn One marks the moment American culture recognized that average Americans had not only lost their faith in their government, but actively began to believe their government capable of great evil. Capricorn One marks the beginning of the Conspiracy Era.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot
Capricorn One opens as NASA prepares to launch the first manned mission to Mars. Astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) board the rocket. The Vice President sits in the reviewing stand awaiting the launch. The President did not come because many have begun to question whether the country can afford to continue exploring space in bad economic times. As the countdown slowly winds down, the capsule door suddenly opens. The astronauts are told to leave the capsule and are whisked away to a waiting plane. The rocket takes off without them.

There was a mistake, Dr. Kelloway (the always-fantastic Hal Holbrook) explains to the confused astronauts. A simple mistake. A contractor messed up, and if the astronauts had remained on the rocket, they would be dead by now. Unfortunately, Holbrook continues, the mistake was discovered too late to be corrected in time without scrubbing the mission. Scrubbing the mission would have meant the end of the program. . . and an end to manned exploration in space. So an alternative plan was formed. They would fake the Mars landing on a studio set. And when the rocket returned to Earth, Brubaker, Willis and Walker would be secretly flown to the splash down site, where they would await rescue, before returning home as badly-needed heroes.

Left with no choice, the astronauts reluctantly agree to participate in the deception. But on its return, the capsule loses its heat shield and burns up in the atmosphere. The astronauts are dead. And when Brubaker, Willis and Walker figure out what happened, they realize NASA can’t afford to let them be seen again. The chase is on.
The First Modern Conspiracy Movie
Released a few years after Watergate, Capricorn One marks the moment the American public first began to believe that their own government was capable of great evil. It marks the beginning of the modern conspiracy theory. Prior to Capricorn One, conspiracies were confined to criminal endeavors or foreign agents. Rarely did the government set out to deceive the population. And when it did, as in Close Encounters, it was done by honest government officials who were looking out for the best interests of the public. The idea of manipulating the American public for personal gain or to protect an agency from embarrassment was simply unheard of. . . and the government never killed its own people (except spies).

Compare this to the modern version of conspiracies, as seen in virtually any movie today. Typically, the most important officials in the government have entered into a secret deal to engage in some nefarious activities that will cause significant harm to the American people. Their motives are sinister, and their methods are murderous and sadistic. Modern conspirators waste no time sending out armies of black-clad, cold-blooded killers to eliminate anyone who even tangentially stumbles upon the conspiracy.

Capricorn One is the movie that marked this change in our culture. It is the film that first told us the American government itself could be a sinister, evil force -- not just a single bad actor in the government. And interestingly, intentionally or not, Peter Hyams lets us watch this transition within Holbrook’s character as the movie unfolds.

Indeed, when we first learn of the conspiracy, Holbrook acts like every other “conspirator” you could find in a 1950’s movie. He is the noble civil servant, pressed into a difficult corner, looking to do the right thing for the American people. He believes he is acting for the good of the public. He wants to protect the efforts of the thousands of people who toiled to make this program work and to save science from the budget axe of a short-sighted Congress. He wants to give America back its heroes and he wants to avoid causing another devastating blow to America’s self-confidence -- an issue on many minds during American’s national post-Watergate malaise. As he explains what happened to the astronauts, he is clearly heartsick. There are times you think he may cry, and you share his pain. Equally importantly, he doesn't threaten the astronauts. He reasons with them and pleads for their support. He does not want to hurt anyone.

But then things begin to go wrong. A NASA employee notices the telemetry readings cannot be correct. He brings this to Holbrook’s attention. But unlike modern conspirators, Holbrook doesn't have him killed. He gives the employee a chance. He tells the employee the machine is broken and instructs him to disregard the data. But the employee persists, and soon he attempts to share this information with a reporter friend -- Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould). It is only then that the employee vanishes and a cover up put into place to hinder Gould’s investigation.

The treatment of Gould too is telling. Had this been a modern conspiracy movie, Holbrook would have ordered Gould eliminated. But that doesn’t happen here -- no black van appears to take Gould away in the night. At first, Gould is merely misled. They try to throw him off the track. But he persists. So they sabotage the brakes on his car. Could this kill him? Yes, but more likely it was only a message, as they easily could have killed him if they wanted to. When he doesn’t get this message, they frame him for drug possession, which gets him fired. With this “threat” neutralized, they ignore him. . . they don’t hunt him down.

But soon a much more modern conspirator emerges in Holbrook. When the capsule burns up on reentry and the astronauts escape the studio facility, Holbrook stops being the innocent conspirator of the 1950s and transitions into a role that would become Hollywood cliché: Holbrook sits behind a desk in a far away office, issuing terse orders over a phone to capture (and possibly kill) the three astronauts. He literally sends black helicopters to hunt them down.

Holbrook has lost his innocence, and so has the culture. Gone is the idea the government can be trusted and will never hurt us. In its place, people now believe in black helicopters and hit squads. And this reflects in the increasingly nasty tone most conspiracy theories have taken in our culture. The government doesn’t just hide the truth about aliens anymore, it blows up buildings to “hide the truth.” It doesn’t just act in our best interests anymore, it now manipulates us so it can carry out its own sinister agenda.

Capricorn One marked the moment this transition began. (Interesting, many credit Capricorn One with popularizing the moon landing conspiracy -- a ridiculous bit of paranoia, bad science and false logic that 6% of Americans, 28% of Russians and 25% of Britons believe.)
Death of Professional Journalism
Capricorn One also marks the dying gasp of old school, professional journalism, an issue highlighted this week by the passing of Walter Cronkite. Indeed, Capricorn One not only shows us what journalism was, it hints at what journalism was about to become.

Consider the character of Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould). Gould is not a modern attack journalist. Notice, for example, how gently he treats Kay Brubaker (Brenda Vaccaro) when he believes her husband has given her clues about what is going on. He doesn't run over and shove a microphone in her face, he asks for an interview. He is respectful. He even asks for permission to delve into more “personal” questions. And unlike modern reporters who love to hear themselves speak, he listens, he does not talk. Nor does he speculate. Nor is he a tabloid journalist, not by our standards. Gould suspects that something is amiss with the Mars landing because his friend told him about the telemetry and because his friend disappeared. But while this would be more than enough evidence for modern journalists to this story, Gould doesn't write the story because he simply doesn't believe he has enough verifiable facts. Thus, he represents old-school journalism.

Yet, his editor, played by David Doyle (Bosley of Charlie’s Angles), sees him as a tabloid journalist. He repeatedly assaults Gould for proposing wild theories, for failing to gather facts, and for failing to cover “hard news” like train derailments. He laments what Gould means for the future of the profession. And in making these complaints, he foreshadows the exact road journalism would take, and it would do so largely because of the new trade in rumor, paranoia, and conspiracy. Thus, as with the shift in thinking about conspiracy theories, Capricorn One gives us a look at how journalism once was, and shows us where it would head in the Conspiracy Era. And that’s the way it was.

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Tennessee Jed said...

A couple of Redford films come to mind, but they probably fall more into a"few bad apple criminals than official policy." I'm thinking of three days of the condor and sneakers.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Sneakers came later. Three Days of the Condor did come before Capricorn One, but it doesn't quite fit what I'm talking about because the conspiracy in that case was more about an inter-agency power struggle between bad-apple CIA agents. As you note, it wasn't really about the government doing wrong, so much as those agents.

And while they do "discover" a vague conspiracy to take over oil fields, that was really just tacked onto the ending to give the conspiracy a purpose, but it never fit into the plot.

I see Condor more as a spy story involving good and bad agents, rather than foreign and domestic agents.

Capricorn One, on the other hand, involves a grand cover up at the highest levels -- of the type that is commonly alleged now.

JG said...

I love that movie, even though it seems to validate the moon truthers I know. As a movie, it's really quite well done.

Writer X said...

I must have seen this movie way back when but, for some reason, I can't remember it. Another great movie review, Andrew. I've added it to my summer viewing list.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I really liked the movie too. It's got a very realistic sense that makes it very believable to me, and the acting is great. Plus, I've discovered that I'm a fan of Hyam's style -- particular in Outland.

The whole "moon truther" thing is really silly. I saw a discussion of it the other day and one of the debunkers made a great point -- this is about "cultural vandalism", trying to diminish human achievement, just as if someone were to pour acid on the Mona Lisa.

(If the inspiration ever strikes, I may do a series on debunking some of these conspiracy theories -- this one in particular.)

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, thanks, glad you liked it. I definitely recommend this film. It's very well done and the acting is superb. I'm particularly a fan of Holbrook, but all the rest do a great job in this.

FYI, I understand that they are talking about remaking the film next year.

Unknown said...

Andrew: There are conspiracies everywhere! They're out to get us. Ever since we started this blog I've been hearing strange clicks on my telephone lines. Hollywood is just confirming my delusions (I mean , my beliefs).

The Parallax View (1974) did the conspiracy thing, only in the opposite direction. In that one, an evil multinational corporation was conspiring against the government, but was slowly bumping off all the elected officials (and news reporters) who got in their way. So eventually, they must have succeeded, since they ended up running the government that resulted in the Capricorn One conspiracy. My head is spinning.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - do you own the Special Edition DVD that was released last year? I don't but it does feature a commentary by Hyams and a new featurette on conspiracy theories. Some good background info, I'm sure. :-)

Hyams actually worked in journalism before making the leap to feature filmmaking.

Re: government conspiracy thrillers, I'm sure some people consider the genre "un-American" but I guess it depends on the context. No one likes to believe something at face value; there must be something else behind it. I recently went to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas (the JFK Museum) and I read a quote: something to the effect of "People need to believe there was a conspiracy because they can't believe the president was simply killed by one lone nut."

In addition to Three Days of the Condor, I would also put The Parallax View into this category. I don't remember it that well, except that it was genuinely spooky at times (assisted by Gordon Willis' trademark inky black photography).

And I'm probably the only person in 100 miles who owns the score to Capricorn One, by the late great Jerry Goldsmith. Intrada Records released it a few years ago and used copies go for $100+ on eBay!

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't really out to get you. LOL!

The Parallax View is one of several corporate conspiracy movies. Those were fairly common prior to Capricorn One, but Capricorn One was really the first broad-brush, sinister, government-run conspiracy movie to come down the pike. And it opened the flood gates really for a new way to view the government.

AndrewPrice said...

ScottDS, I don't have the special edition -- my DVD is a lot older, but now that you mention it, I am interested in seeing the special features.

On conspiracies, I think there are three reasons why people believe in conspiracies. (1) Sometimes, historically speaking, they have proven to be true;

(2) as you note, we don't like the idea that a single bad decision or a single nut or a single mistake can change the course of human history; and

3) humans by their nature tend to categorizes information and they look for connections -- that's why we are good at science -- conspiracy theories are a natural outgrowth of that, because we see a lot of facts in hindsight that we instinctively want to combine.

P.S. On soundtracks, I'm still jealous that you have the Black Hole soundtrack! :-)

ScottDS said...

If it makes you feel any better, I actually don't own The Black Hole soundtrack and I apologize if I implied that I did in that BH thread last month. I can get it from iTunes but I'm holding out for a complete, remastered version one day.

(Anything is possible. Last Monday, Film Score Monthly announced a release of the complete, remastered Star Trek II score. Talk about coming out of left field!)

And I would very much enjoy a column from you debunking various conspiracies. Like one of the astronauts said, if we faked the trip to the moon, why did we fake it twelve times?

BevfromNYC said...

Law, just a suggestion, only pay cash for the aluminum foil you buy and/or wear (if you know what I mean). "They" track your consumption and adjust their listening waves accordingly. Why else do they want us to "recycle" aluminum? ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

ScottDS, I'll see what I can do about putting together a series.

You can get the Black Holes soundtrack on iTunes? Really! I'm going to have to check that out. I really love that sound track. It's got this amazing ... how to describe it... "circular sense" to it that can almost make you dizzy listening to it. It's very impressive.

Unknown said...

Bev: I'm way ahead of you. I now wear state-of-the-art mirrored hats with lot of mercury behind the glass. The only thing the feds are now monitoring is my ham sandwich that I'm taking with me for lunch. I intend to leave the foil on a park bench, thereby littering and foiling the people who are following me. Bwah hah hah!

DCAlleyKat said...

Ah, LawHawk..."Sitting on a park bench..."

Another well done piece Andrew!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks DCAlleyKat! :-)

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