The later ‘70s were a golden age for the differently-obsessed. We were in the middle of a second saucer craze, but this time the boundaries had expanded and mainstream culture played along. Everyone was interested in strange phenomena. Books about Bigfoot, The Bermuda Triangle and Ancient astronauts topped the bestseller charts. TV offered up shows like In Search Of and Project UFO, specialty magazines (and even short-run comics) popped up every month. In movie theaters Sunn International released a string of low-budget documentaries about the Loch Ness monster, alien visitations and Biblical prophecies about the end of the world, all of it providing a steady slow drip of what Jack Webb called High Strangeness.
As part of all that, Hollywood, through a series of big-budget all-star productions, introduced a generation of young Geeks to the joys of conspiracy theory.There had been fictionalized accounts of other, real conspiracies in the past (like Executive Action, the first and still the best film about the plot to kill Kennedy), but this new crop was different. These were technoparanoid, space-age conspiracy theories. The stories were updated and modernized and clearly fictional, but the events they were portraying were obvious.
Shortly after people began whispering about Roswell and Area 51, along came Hangar 18 (1980) with the great Darren McGavin. Even though it’s set in the early ‘80s and opens with a space shuttle mishap, well, everyone knew they were really talking about New Mexico in 1947, right?
Same with writer/director Peter Hyam’s Capricorn One. Although the story concerns a faked, manned mission to Mars, the nudge and the wink was clear. Even the TV spots gave it away. “What if the greatest event in human history,” the narrator asked as the camera pulls back from an iconic image of an astronaut standing beside a flag and lunar module to reveal he’s on a movie soundstage, “… never really happened?”
I was never one to doubt the moon landing actually took place exactly as they’ve always said it did. I got up at 4 a.m. that morning in 1969 to watch it live. All the research I’ve done since has only confirmed that belief. I did find it a little curious though that in the 40 years following his walk on the moon Neil Armstrong never spoke publicly about the mission.
Rumors and assorted crazy stories about the ‘69 moon landing had been floating about from the moment Armstrong took that one, small step, but they were mostly restricted to the insular tinfoil hat community. For most audience members in that pre-Internet age, Capricorn One was their introduction to the very idea that the moon landing might have been a big, fat hoax.
(Interestingly, the film came out a mere eight years after Apollo 11 and was made with NASA’s full cooperation. Puzzle that one over.)
Capricorn One opens with a shot of the rocket on the launch pad at dawn as Jerry Goldsmith’s militant, sinister music soars and sitting in the theater I recall noting two things. It seemed odd, for one, that the first manned trip to Mars would still be part of the aging Apollo program. And second, if they were hoping to use the same Saturn V booster to get them to Mars and back, they were shit outta luck. I mean, no wonder they had to fake it! They didn’t have enough fuel to get them there, let alone make a round trip!
(I was a terrible space-program Geek from the beginning.)
The story is laid out in the first ten minutes, as seconds before the launch the astronauts are yanked out of the capsule and plunked into a sterile boardroom.James Brolin is Brubaker, the serious, earnest one with moral issues. Sam Waterston is Willis, the wisecracking one (for years I thought he was Scott Walker, who played wisecracking astronauts in both The Right Stuff and The Ninth Configuration). And OJ Simpson is, well, OJ Simpson, the expendable one.
After giving a beautifully written speech about the history of the manned space program, project director Kellaway (Hal Holbrook) explains that they’d learned some time back that the life support system designed by Con Amalgamate would have failed a few weeks into the mission and they all would have died. (For those who bothered to see Hyams’ next picture, Outland, you might recognize Con Amalgamate as the evil corporation in that film, too.) Anyway, since the mission could not be allowed to fail, they decided to fake the whole thing in a big warehouse. Holbrook gives another great performance as a man who has believed deeply in the program from the beginning and though he hates the idea of a hoax he sees it as the only way to keep the program alive.
“If the only way to keep something alive is to become everything I hate,” the morality-sodden Brubaker replies, “then maybe it’s not worth keeping alive.”
That’s when Kellaway mentions that oh and by the way, if they don’t play along, all their families will be blown up. So there you go.
So at this point the audience has the whole layout and we spend the rest of the picture cutting between the astronauts as they decide to run away and tell the truth and investigative reporter Elliot Gould, who hasn’t seen the first ten minutes, as he tries to figure the story out for himself in his typical loosey-goosey, wisecracking way. Among all the other characters he meets, Gould runs into cropduster Telly Savalas, who seems to be recreating Keenan Wynn’s performance from Dr. Strangelove, in one of a few quiet nods to the rumor that Kubrick actually directed the fake moon landing. But I’ll leave that one to the conspiracists.
In Hangar 18 the villain was clear. Robert Vaughn was in it and he’s always the villain. In more accurate conspiratorial fashion, here the villain out to kill the astronauts and Gould remains nameless and faceless, referred to only as “They,” “Them,” “Powerful Forces” and my personal favorite, “Grown-Ups”. Hyams pulls a neat trick though, by introducing a pair of those conspiracy standbys, the black helicopters. The amazing thing is, he’s somehow managed to give the helicopters themselves personalities as they try to hunt down their prey. In its final third the picture becomes an action thriller with stunts aplenty, several of which would later be recycled for TV’s The Fall Guy. Prior to that, Hyams pulled together a neat, taut, funny and wholly believable story that raised a lot of questions and posed some intriguing moral problems.
Both Hangar 18 and Capricorn One have supposedly happy endings in which the heroes survive and the truth of the massive conspiracies is revealed to the general public. But that’s where things stop. We get no sense of what the implications or repercussions to that news might be. Did the enraged masses panic and riot? Were there mass suicides? Were government officials hanged in the town square?
Of course in this paranoid, conspiratorial age learning once and for true that the moon landing was a hoax and the government has an alien craft in its possession would likely elicit little more than a shrug.
Den Of Geek Rating: 4 Stars