Capricorn One (1978)

Director: Peter Hyams

Starring: Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook

On July 20, 1969, millions tuned in to their televisions, most of them watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Man was landing on the Moon. It ranks as one of the pivotal moments in our history. All who witnessed it will never forget where they were nor what they saw. But what did they really see? Conspiracy theorists would tell you that none of it was real, that it was all performed on a sound stage. There is much evidence to refute these claims. I was born a decade too late to be able to say I watched the live broadcast, but I’ve seen the archival footage time and time again, enough to know that it’s a part of our history, and we have recorded video evidence as proof that it happened. You might as well tell me that we were filming a movie in Vietnam, or that every family vacation we’ve ever captured on camera was a sham. Still, the United States has long had the most well-financed movie studios with the greatest special effects technology in the world. What if NASA decided that they needed to fake a manned outer space mission?

Astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston) and John Walker (O.J. Simpson), about to embark on the first manned mission to Mars, are pulled from their space vehicle just before launch and told that the life-support system is cheap, faulty, and won’t last long enough for them to survive their journey. Capricorn One launches as scheduled without its three-man crew, and the men are coerced by Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) into performing for the cameras as though the mission were going according to plan. Something goes wrong with the rocket upon re-entry and the nation mourns. The astronauts, realizing that the world believes them to be dead, separate in the hope that at least one of them will reach civilization and reveal the truth.

The best parts of “Capricorn One” are in the beginning, during the faux Mars mission. Tensions mount as the astronauts struggle with continuing to perpetrate the lie, pretending to traverse the surface of Mars or talk to their families from the command module when they’re really just miles away in a film studio. The rest of the movie is a standard, race-against-the-clock chase sequence that’s been done to death. The plot loses steam in the last hour and never really recovers. There is never any doubt who will survive nor how dramatic their entrance at the end will be. The cast, which is mostly good, doesn’t get enough individual moments to make them feel like anything other than cardboard cutouts.

Writer/Director Peter Hyams got the idea for “Capricorn One” from the theories that had been popping up which questioned the authenticity of the Apollo 11 footage. It seems a little outdated now, yet we’re still no closer to Mars than we were back then. At the time of the movie’s release in 1978, the only men lost in the space program were the three casualties of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967. Since then, we’ve lost fourteen other men and women with the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, in 1986 and 2003 respectively. It was not until the Columbia disaster that we had an American space mission end with the vessel breaking apart in re-entry like what happens to Capricorn One. You don’t hear of anyone insisting that the Columbia crew is still alive out there somewhere, do you? It is one thing to allege that the Lunar missions were fake, but it would be another thing entirely if people were to accuse NASA of faking the shuttle accidents for the sake of TV news ratings.

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