|Director Robert Altman|
|Altman on the set|
|Screenshot of James Caan and Joanna Moore|
COUNTDOWN B- USA (101 mi) 1968 d: Robert Altman
An early, often forgotten film by Robert Altman, his first feature shot more than a decade after his earlier 1950’s ventures, the perpetually underseen Corn's-A-Poppin' (1955), a horribly bad film where Altman is only listed as a co-writer in the credits, a fictionalized look at juvenile delinquency in THE DELINQUENTS (1957) and the teen exploitation documentary THE JAMES DEAN STORY (1957), none of which show early signs of the director he was to become. While working steadily in television for more than a decade, this film has bigger stars and more recognizable camera movement, yet it’s still more of a television drama than a Robert Altman movie, an adaptation of the 1964 Hank Searles book The Pilgrim Project, which is mostly a behind-the-scenes look at NASA in its infancy, which fully cooperated with the film, offering its facilities, including the Cape Canaveral missile launch location and the nearby, recently opened Kennedy Space Center. Released 18-months before the first manned mission to the moon, this is a fictionalized, last-minute attempt to beat the Russians to the moon during the space race, known as the Pilgrim Project, accelerated into action after learning the Russians were on the verge of making a moon landing, where egos and petty jealousies come into play, yet in true Altman fashion he was fired before completing the film, as studio head Jack Warner looked at some of the footage and immediately demanded his dismissal claiming “That fool has actors talking at the same time.” Of course, overlapping dialogue would become a standard trademark of any Robert Altman film, but early on the studio expressed little interest in this innovative filmmaking quirk. Executive producer William Conrad, who actually hired Altman for the film, shot some new footage and provided a happier and more upbeat ending, as Altman’s original bleak ending had the astronaut lost on the moon, wandering in the wrong direction, ultimately doomed on a lifelessly deserted terrain. Despite this interference, there are early signs of an Altman film, basically a blip on the radar, standing in stark contrast to Philip Kaufman’s large-scale historical drama THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), pitting two astronauts against one another (a prelude to seeing them work together in The Godfather (film series) 1972, 74,1990, also appearing in Coppola’s THE RAIN PEOPLE in 1969 and again as rivals in Sam Peckinpah’s THE KILLER ELITE in 1975), starring Robert Duvall as Chiz, an Air Force trained colonel who knows every aspect of the mission, groomed for the project early on, completing all the exercise missions, but he’s pulled out at the last minute because of his association with the military, which the top brass felt was a bad look for the first man on the moon, needing the optics of a civilian on a mission of peace, as they want no rumors of military intervention in outer space during the Cold War, when Americans were competing against the Russians. In an early scene, where viewers aren’t sure what’s an exercise and what’s real, the mission is mysteriously aborted, leaving the crew totally befuddled, only to learn afterwards that there’s been a revision in the sped-up timetable and a change in assignment, Countdown (1968) -- (Movie Clip) Roger, Houston, Apollo 3 ... YouTube (2:27). Plucked from the ranks is James Caan as Lee Stegler, an All-American guy who was a subordinate of Chiz, a member of his crew suddenly catapulting over him for the coveted mission, given just three weeks training before the launch, which doesn’t sit well with Chiz, who intends to undermine Lee, agreeing to train him, but drive him hard, proving he’s not ready, making the case that he’s the only one for the job. Even during exercise missions there are plenty of distinctly different points of view, leading to disagreements and bureaucratic handwringing, causing unneeded tension, hardly the teamwork one might expect, yet the astronauts themselves are surprisingly clear about what they need to do, Countdown (1968) -- (Movie Clip) He Thinks He Can Fly - TCM YouTube (3:54).
Loosely remade by Ron Howard in APOLLO 13 (1995) with a much larger budget, this fits the low budget B-movie profile, better than expected, with very little science fiction to speak of but plenty of realistic detail, less interested in heroism or an established plot, with no real good guys, just a bunch of ordinary working stiffs doing their jobs, yet lacking the personal intensity of an Altman movie, resembling the cheesy sets on the television series Star Trek (1966 – 69), yet this is a typical Hollywood studio film told in linear fashion, using a structure that Altman would largely rail against for the entirety of his career afterwards, with a swelling atonal orchestral score by Leonard Rosenman that offers a sense of spacious anxiety, Leonard Rosenman music score from Robert Altman's COUNTDOWN (1968) Main & End Titles. YouTube (2:55), mirroring the epic musical score from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which was released just one month earlier, while the sets seen are replicas of actual NASA lunar modules used for exercise missions, where it’s hard to imagine being cramped into that tight space for days on end. The script was written by Loring Mandel, a giant of “live” drama from the Golden Age of Television like Playhouse 90 or CBS Playhouse, anticipating the actual moon landing, though in much more desperate and alienating fashion, as Lee would be transported to the surface of the moon, where he would have three hour’s worth of oxygen to find a space station already on the surface, where once inside, he could safely live there for the next 10 months, or a year or so, until another mission could come to rescue him. This astonishing isolation, being stranded on the moon, is actually the intended goal of the mission, the first dry run of the international space station which has been in existence since 1998, though orbiting around the earth. This offers a completely different emotional edge to the experience, as neither astronaut has been trained to endure long periods of isolation. Altman shifts the focus to the astronaut’s wives, Barbara Baxley as Jean is the seemingly exiled wife of Chiz, rarely seen in each other’s company, while Joanna Moore as Mickey is the devoted wife of Lee (both blondes), often seen in social settings with a drink in their hands, but they are largely ignored and kept out of the official loop, literally kept in the dark, both seen here when they first inadvertently hear about the mission, still thinking Chiz will be the lone astronaut, Countdown (1968) -- (Movie Clip) An Emergency Backup To ... YouTube (3:08). Living in the shadows of their husbands, feeling obligated to support them, yet clearly they’re stressed out about all the things they aren’t being told about what could possibly go wrong, not the least of which is having a husband and father stranded on the moon indefinitely, while their shock and silence mirrors their husband’s overall sense of secrecy and extreme isolation. There’s also a power play between a no-nonsense NASA administrator Ross (Steve Ihnat) and Navy doctor Gus (Charles Aidman), who voices his concerns for the health of the astronaut which, to put it bluntly, is never the primary focus of the operation, typically overlooked for the bigger picture, precariously cutting corners in a last minute high risk, high reward gamble in order to beat the Russians to the moon, with Ross quickly setting him straight about the mission’s expedited priorities, as you’re either all-in or out, Countdown - Steve Ihnat vs Charles Aidman YouTube (1:50).
Using Altman regular Michael Murphy as one of the crew, whose work with Altman goes back to a television episode of Combat (1962 – 67) in 1963, and Ted Knight, known for his role as a dim-witted and totally clueless news anchor with perfect enunciation on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970 – 77), plays a bloviating NASA public relations guy, yet what Altman gets right is the look of the late 50’s and early 60’s, particularly the men working for NASA, all in crew cuts, wearing those undistinguished Eisenhower era glasses that were so commonplace, but also the press corps, the vintage cars, the bars, and the social gatherings. At one party filled with NASA personnel (actually shot at Altman’s own Mandeville Canyon residence in Brentwood), an out-of-place Bohemian folk musician (voice artist Robert Ridgely) is singing a song about folk hero John Henry, transporting him from the railroad to the moon, making up satiric spoof lyrics about how “the moon is gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord,” Countdown (1968) -- (Movie Clip) The Man In The Moon Is A Girl YouTube (3:20). This is in such bad taste, especially with the astronauts and their wives present, that it feels like it had to be an Altman touch, as the man had a thing for bad jokes, much like incorporating a song entitled “Suicide is Painless” during an irreverent Last Supper homage in MASH (1970), MASH Funeral Scene 1080p YouTube (2:25). The moon flight has Lee in the capsule while Chiz guides him from the Houston Command Center, staying in radio contact, continually providing instructions, while the wives watch from a glass-enclosed room in the back, seeing and hearing everything. What’s surprising is that Lee gets rattled by unexpected circumstances, encountering a power drain malfunction that causes him to lose his composure, showing visible fear at having to shut down much of his power, not trusting that it will be there when he needs it, but conditions eventually stabilize. Radio contact is sporadic as he nears the moon, so part of each message is missing, yet Chiz is adamant about aborting the landing should he be unable to make eye contact with the space module with a flashing beacon, as there is still an opportunity for a safe return to earth. Never really seeing it on the approach, Lee refuses to see failure as an option and lands on the surface anyway, losing all radio contact, shot in the Mojave Desert to simulate the surface of the moon. He has only a brief window to find it, and instead, in a chilling Altman twist, discovers gruesome evidence of a failed Russian landing that is a sobering reminder of just what can go wrong. An inveterate gambler, Altman devises a scheme of chance that sends him in the wrong direction, as viewed from a pulled back vantage point from the module, like a Hitchcockian device, ending in downbeat fashion, but that’s not what we see, just the opposite, curiously expressed through a long and wordless sequence, which does really feel like an exploration, but lacks any sense of outer space curiosity, showing no signs of awe or wonder. Unlike the actual moon, with little gravitational pull, where a moon walk consists of giant skips and bounces, this is more straightforward where a walk is a walk, yet the region is entirely lifeless and desolate, exhausting the entirety of his oxygen supply, relying upon a miracle, which, of course, happens in the movies. Every expedition needs a little luck. Still, even if successful, he’s stranded up there for months on end, yet food, air supply, and radio contact will allow him to maintain human contact. It’s a very eerie and unsettling conclusion, where a scene involving the American and Russian flags might seem surprisingly civil, as there’s little patriotic fervor, but James Caan does an excellent job as the man on the moon, where all earthly relations and connections will just have to wait until the scientists figure out how to get him back. It’s a bit surreal, evolving slowly in extreme quiet, allowing the potentially dire implications to play out.