Film Review: Countdown (dir by Robert Altman)


 

Earlier tonight, on TCM, I watched the 1968 science fiction film, Countdown.

Who will be the first man to walk on the moon?  Will it be Chiz (Robert Duvall), who is a colonel in the Air Force and who has been training for years and who really should get the chance just because he has a really cool name like Chiz?  Or will it be Chiz’s best friend, Lee (James Caan)?  Lee may not have Chiz’s experience but he’s a scientist and selecting him would allow NASA to portray the mission of being one of peace as opposed to one of war.  Add to that, Lee has a full head of hair and he looks like a young James Caan, who was an undeniably handsome man back in his younger days!  I mean, seriously — who would you rather have as the face of the space program: Tom Hagen or Sonny Corleone?

Of course, it might not really matter who NASA picks because the Russians are determined to get to the moon as well.  And you know what that means!  If the Russians land on the moon first, they’ll turn it into a Socialist utopia and that’ll mean ugly architecture, bread lines, and a three-month wait for toilet paper.  The stakes have never been higher!

Countdown was made and released at the height of the space race, at a time when Americans really did feel that they were competing with the Russians to be the first to reach the moon.  (Of course later, it would be learned that the Russian space program actually managed to kill far more cosmonauts than it successfully sent into orbit.)  It came out a year before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first Earthling since Stanley Kubrick to ever step on the lunar surface.  As such, it’s interesting to see how Countdown imagines the experience of exploring the moon.  I won’t spoil who reaches the moon first but I will say that he moves remarkably quickly and with great ease for someone in a gravity-free environment.

Countdown is a good example of what I like to call a “time capsule” film.  Seen today, it’s kinda slow and a bit predictable.  For all the time that is spent on getting the astronauts ready to go into space, very little time is actually spent in orbit.  This is a very Earth-bound film.  And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, it’s hard not to be a little bit fascinated by a movie like this.  In everything, from its fashions to its dialogue to its cultural outlook, this is very much a document of its time.  It may be a while until we have the technology necessary to travel through time.  Until then, watching a film like this might be as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing what the straight, non-Hippie crowd was doing in 1968.

If you’re a student of film history, Countdown is significant for being one of the first films to be directed by Robert Altman.  To be honest, if not for his name in the opening credits, you would probably never guess that Countdown was directed by one of America’s most influential and iconic directors.  Altman specialized in making film that were almost defiantly iconaclastic and there’s very little of that to be found in Countdown.  Admittedly, there are a few scenes that make use of overlapping dialogue and there’s a party scene that’s definitely Altmanesque.  However, the only reason I really noticed that party scene is because I was specifically looking for evidence of Altman’s style.  For the most part, the most identifiably Altmanesque element of Countdown is the casting of Michael Murphy in a small role.

The film is dominated by Robert Duvall and James Caan and, especially if you’re a fan of The Godfather, it’s undeniably fun to see these two acting opposite each other in something other than an epic gangster film.  (Duvall and Caan also acted together in The Rain People and The Killer Elite and were reportedly great friends off-camera as well.)  Duvall is especially good in Countdown, playing Chiz as a man torn between an innate sense of loyalty and his own competitive nature.  The scenes between Duvall and Caan have a charge to them that occasionally bring some much-needed life to this film.

In the end, Countdown is a fairly forgettable film but it’s worth seeing as a piece of history.

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