By Kenny Hedges
After the Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters and subsequent revelations made public by the Washington Post, Hollywood was inundated with conspiracy films. A decade of high-profile assassinations, the Vietnam War and covert bombings of Cambodia and the resignation of a disgraced president had left Americans more distrustful of their government than ever before. The rise of Donald Trump in the political arena marks a return of the public’s fascination with conspiracy theories, only today they are not viewed as fiction, but embraced by a disturbingly large number of people at face value. Welcome to The Days of Alternative Facts, where we remember when conspiracies were reserved for the silver screen, journalists weren’t labelled the enemy of the people and Alex Jones was an actual infant, not a giant-sized one.
Mars exploration has fallen into the purview of eccentric billionaires. Richard Branson, Elon Musk and company insist that space travel will one day be a public option, not one reserved for the government. And while the current president speaks of a new branch of the military comically known as the “Space Force”, the general American public has fallen out of love with NASA. In fact, the only newsworthy talk of space travel appears to be far-off discussions of Mars is related to using the planet as a back-up as Earth’s egological existence continues to be under threat. That doesn’t stop America from decimating the EPA, lining the pockets of coal lobbyists and dismissing climate change as a hoax, mind you. As Bill Maher argued earlier this year during an editorial, perhaps we’d be better off focusing on the planet that actually has an atmosphere in which we can breathe.
In 1977, not ten years after Apollo 11 had successfully landed on the Moon, director Peter Hyams planted an early seed of doubt in the future of the space program. Capricorn One was released at the height of the conspiracy thriller subgrenre. One year previous, former U.S. Navy officer Bill Kaysing published his book We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. Hyams first conceived of Capricorn while working on the Apollo broadcasts for CBS, noting that the only proof that any of the moon landing actually took place came from a TV camera.
Capricorn opens with three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O.J. Simpson) boarding their vessel on launch day, only to be pulled out and taken to an undisclosed location before take-off. There they are debriefed by scientist Hal Holbrook, who explains that their life-support systems wouldn’t have worked. Rather than cancel the launch and risk losing funding from an already disinterested Washington, Holbrook decides to fake it, blackmailing and intimidating the astronauts into co-operating with the hoax. After their deaths are faked upon a supposed botched re-entry, it’s up to disgraced reporter Elliot Gould to put the pieces together.
Hyams has always been more of a journeyman director, but his interest in conspiracies have been a recurring theme in his work. His later work tends to focus on cover-ups on a smaller scale (the museum directors in The Relic, the cabal of vigilante judges in The Star Chamber, the mafia hitmen in Narrow Margin), but Capricorn is his only high-concept, paranoia-infused thriller. It’s also more offbeat than similar films of the era. The cast is star-studded, playing out more like an ensemble piece. Gould’s reporter only becomes a central figure in the film’s second half, the first dedicated to depicting just how the hoax is pulled off. Other conspiracy thrillers would have focused on Gould’s investigation, rather than procedurally laying bare the inner-workings of the cover-up right away.
But Hyams couldn’t have stacked the cast better. Even minor roles are filled with character actors such as the recently departed James Karen, Coen Bros. regular David Huddleston and the aforementioned Holbrook and Waterston. The latter two are easily the film’s standouts, with Holbrook playing the corrupt scientist as a desperate, guilt-ridden idealist and Waterston providing some genuinely funny wisecracks as a comic relief in an otherwise deadly serious film. Gould lives up to his reputation as a living embodiment of the 1970s, at times both cynically funny and frustrated.
It’s also notable that Hyams takes a more humanistic view of space travel, ignoring entirely the Russia vs. U.S. space race. Just recently, First Man sparked some controversy by not including (or at least not glorifying) the planting of the American flag on the moon. While the American flag is planted on the studio set meant to be Mars, the astronauts make a point of referring to the hoax as a great moment for all mankind.
If the film has a fatal flaw, it’s the second half, where the film’s numerous plot threads separate into seemingly different movies. While the three marked for death astronauts escape into the desert, Gould tracks down his story and Holbrook struggles to keep the hoax alive, the timelines no longer cohere. The first hour of the film is deliberately paced, marking the dates of the faked launch, landing and return of the astronauts clearly. Later, it’s unclear whether weeks or days have passed. When the film desperately needs a sense of urgency, Hyams falters.
Nevertheless, it’s a particularly interesting, timely relic. Folklorist Linda Degh credits the film’s popularity with the furthering of the moon landing conspiracy theory, elaborating that, “The mass media catapult these half-truths into a kind of twilight zone where people can make their guesses sound as truths. Mass media have a terrible impact on people who lack guidance.”
In an era in which Infowars has a seat at the table, it rings eerily true.
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