A great sci-fi political thriller reflecting the increasingly prevalent cynicism of the 1970s through to the present day
Directed by Peter Hyams
Written by Peter Hyams
Produced by Paul N. Lazarus III
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Edited by James Mitchell
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Production company: ITC Entertainment
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 124 minutes
Budget: $5 million (approx.)
Box office: $12 million (US and Canada rental)
Elliott Gould as Robert Caulfield
James Brolin as Charles Brubaker
Brenda Vaccaro as Kay Brubaker
Sam Waterston as Peter Willis
O. J. Simpson as John Walker
Hal Holbrook as Dr. James Kelloway
Karen Black as Judy Drinkwater
Telly Savalas as Albain
David Huddleston as Hollis Peaker
David Doyle as Walter Loughlin
Lee Bryant as Sharon Willis
Denise Nicholas as Betty Walker
Robert Walden as Elliot Whitter
Alan Fudge as Capsule Communicator
“Capricorn One,” NASA’s first manned mission to Mars.
Seconds before the launch, the crew is pulled from the capsule!
The rocket leaves earth unmanned!
The life support system is faulty!
NASA fears the publicity of a scratched mission!
An unthinkable plot is hatched!
An investigative reporter puts pieces together of an unthinkable mystery involving..
Humanity’s greatest achievement
Read on for more…..
“Well, gentlemen, let’s go to Mars”
At Cape Canaveral, Florida on the morning of January 4, NASA readies the spacecraft Capricorn One for launch. It is to be the first manned mission to Mars.
As the crew, Colonel Charles Brubaker (the Command Pilot,) Lieutenant Colonel Peter Willis and Commander John Walker prepare to enter the spacecraft, one of the support team by the name of Horace addresses them. He tells them that he has spent his whole life on just this mission and that all he has worked for has meaning on this very day for which he has great pride.
We often forget that a person’s entire career may be devoted to the conception, preparation and undertaking of just one single mission in the space program. Imagine then what it would mean for someone who has so much of their being invested in one single enterprise, should that mission fail for any reason. Worth keeping in mind as the rest of the story unfolds. Consider also the irony of the Capricorn One crew being handed a bible prior to launch and just how much of what is intangible in terms of people’s trust along with human principles and values they would be taking with them on their journey.
“There are many people who feel that we have problems here, on Earth that merit our attention”
The gathering of the political and military elite as spectators of the launch provide us with an insight into the machinations and motivations that often lie behind such an enterprise. Take Congressman Hollis Peaker for instance who is a politician used to getting his own way and that anyone who cooperates like young Mark Hughes who shows the congressman that he can “learn pretty quick” will surely “do all right.” The message being: tow the line and do what you are told.
The fact that the US President is unable to attend the launch due supposedly to “some pressing matters that needed his attention in Washington” speaks volumes about the priority of the mission and how political factors might take precedence, “like getting re-elected?”
It is also surprising how much in-fighting, rivalry, undermining and lack of goodwill and cooperation can exist between departments and various sections of the political establishment despite outward public demonstrations of unity of purpose. Take the underlying hostility between Congressman Hollis and the Vice President. Hollis is obviously chagrined by the President’s evident lack of support for the Mars mission program and sarcastically expresses the wish that “he would only be a little more helpful with this program here.” The Vice president counters with the current political imperatives that the administration has to consider, namely the “many people who feel that we have problems here, on Earth that merit our attention before we spent billions of dollars on outer space” and that “there are no more pressing problems than our declining position in world leadership.”
Nowhere in the exchange between the two politicians is any consideration given to the ideals of human exploration of the unknown or the quest for knowledge. Everything is viewed through the lens of political expediency and advantage.
“Colonel, I know this sounds strange, we are all working for the same thing. We are not your enemy”
Meanwhile back aboard the spacecraft, Command pilot Charles Brubaker and his fellow astronauts, Peter Willis and John Walker, perform final checks inside the capsule. Suddenly a suited official opens the hatch and demands that they leave the craft immediately due to an emergency. They reluctantly comply.
At the base, the NASA director, Dr. James Kelloway enters the room where the three astronauts are impatiently waiting and begins to explain what is happening. He starts off by appealing to them on a personal and emotional level by referring to his 16 year friendship with Charles Brubaker.
Kelloway then makes reference to the public’s declining interest in the Apollo lunar missions and how by Apollo 17 “people were callin’ up the networks and bitchin’ because reruns of I Love Lucy were cancelled.” The initial hopes and dreams that were associated with the space program had been replaced by the hard practicalities of everyday life with people more concerned “about how much everything cost” and whether it was “really worth twenty billion to go to another planet.”
Having established a collective connection between himself and his three-man audience, Kelloway goes on to add that “after all those hopes and all that dreaming” the President informs him that they “can’t afford a screw-up” and does not even bother to make a personal appearance at the launch of Capricorn One as a result of a political calculation.
Kelloway then moves on to solidify the notion of their collective plight by further demonstrating how they have been let down by the administration in charge of the program and by those who are associated with it materially and economically. He informs the astronauts that the life-support system was supplied by “the good people from Con-Amalgamate” and that it was “cheap enough so they could make a profit on the deal.” However, the life-support system was recently discovered to be faulty, and it would have only kept the astronauts alive for three weeks.
If Kelloway reported on what had happened and the mission is scrubbed then “Congress has its excuse, the President still has his desk and we have no more program.” The result: 16 years worth of hopes, dreams, work and reputation down the toilet. The decision as to what to do next leads to perhaps the central motivation behind what is about to unfold – “the moment of the truth.”
“You have to help!”
”And what if I don’t?”
“You have to help!”
When the module returns to Earth, “the spacecraft will land two hundred miles off target” and the astronauts will be flown to an island near that point from where they’ll be transferred to a helicopter that will fly them to the space capsule. After an hour and a half inside the capsule, the men will be retrieved by the recovery forces.
It seems as though everything has been thought of concerning this conspiracy, this hoax, this cover-up. But what of the morality of such a scheme which may lead the three central players to refuse to participate?
Kelloway proceeds to take the high moral ground by reminding the three men just how much they’ve achieved and appealing to their sense of patriotism in terms of what they and the program means to their country, a country where “nobody gives a crap about anything any more” and where “there’s nothing more to believe in.” Kelloway shifts the burden of responsibility on to the shoulders of the three men by implying that they will be judged as guilty of being “the ones who give everyone another reason to give up.” Listening to Kelloway’s rationalization and justifications of his actions, it is as if he were attempting to convince himself more so than the three astronauts.
Seeing through Kelloway’s disgraceful ruse to convince them to cooperate, the three men question the morality of the hoax enterprise. Kelloway is forced to play the last ace up his sleeve and it concerns the coercive exercise of power by powerful interests and “forces out there who have a lot to lose.” Kelloway in a desperate and sniveling demonstration, attempts to distance himself further from any personal responsibility for betraying his friends and indeed his country, by suggesting that the affair has become too big and is out of his hands and that a plane carrying the men’s families to Houston has been rigged with an explosive device that will detonate if they refuse to cooperate. Far from being out of his hands and devoid of personal responsibility, much depends on what message is relayed by Kelloway to the shadowy powerful forces behind the conspiracy. His guilt consists of his participation in and cooperation with the scheme.
“I have a problem, sir”
Meanwhile, Elliot Whitter, a technician at mission control in Houston, notifies one of his superiors, Dr. Bergen that after running a check on the transmission on his own, he has noticed that the television signals from Capricorn One seem to be coming in ahead of the spacecraft signals. It would seem to suggest that “like they’re closer or something…Much closer.”
Dr. Bergen assures him that his console 36 is the source of the problem as it had previously malfunctioned and that it will be checked. Bergen thanks Whitter for showing initiative, but it seems that initiative is the last thing that those in charge want to see their underlings displaying. As we saw with the politicians at the launch, what is wanted are ‘yes men’ who simply do what they are told and don’t create waves.
The above episode also shows how any cover-up or conspiracy involving a sizeable group of people cannot foresee every potential problem or take account of every variable. The first hole in the fabric of the scheme through which pokes the finger of truth reveals itself when Elliot continues to research the data he’s obtained at home.
Meanwhile, the astronauts are being virtually held captive during the mission’s duration and their landing on Mars is in fact being filmed on the Martian surface stage set inside a makeshift TV studio at the base. The wives of the flight crew are at Mission Control to witness what they and everyone else believes to be their husbands becoming the first humans to set foot on Mars which makes the tragedy of the whole situation even more poignant.
After sharing his earlier concerns about the transmission signal with Kelloway as he had with Dr Bergen and receiving the same kind of response from him, Whitter arranges to meet with his TV journalist friend, Robert Caulfield. During a game of pool, Elliot indicates to Caulfield that his calculations must be wrong as they suggest that the television signals from the spacecraft are no more than 300 miles away. A cleverly timed telephone call suddenly interrupts their conversation. Soon after taking the call Caulfield returns to the pool table only to discover that Elliot has disappeared!
“Houston, this is Capricorn One. We have landed.”
With the landing seemingly accomplished, it is time for the astronauts’ EVA where the whole world hears the words of the “very pleased” President’s message which serves to provide us with the grim irony surrounding the reality of what has taken place:
“….We will never be the same, for this moment more than any moment in our history has made all of the people in the world realize that we are part of the planet that is part of the system, that is part of the Universe. We are a small energetic species capable of pettiness, yet capable of brilliance. We know how bad we can be. Now you, the men of Capricorn One, have shown us how wonderful we can be by showing us how high we can reach….. you have shown us what we are: people….a single people. You are the basic truth in us. You are the reality. We will never let you down and we will always be grateful.”
Should the truth of the matter be made known then most assuredly things will definitely not be the same again and we (and the universe) would come to know what our species is truly capable of and what exactly we are!
“I’m not gonna do it”
Later on at the Mars set, Charles informs his crew mates that he will no longer cooperate and lie to his wife during the next day’s broadcast. He can no longer bring himself to be setting such a bad example for his children while his two friends are concerned for the fate of their families and the capabilities of those who have placed them in this predicament. It’s a case of being prepared to stand up for one’s principles versus compliance with what you know to be wrong due to fear of the consequences. I really wonder what any of us would do in such a situation? Who can really know for sure until one is forced to face such a choice? Or perhaps such choices have already been made by us, are being made and will continue to be made whereby we compromise our principles and settle for compliance out of fear, for personal advantage or for the sake of convenience?
The three astronauts are smart men and yet they have failed to consider that their conversation might be overheard. Guess what? It has been, by one of the technicians.
“It’s hard to believe you really are that far away in space”
At “T-plus 223 days, 6 hours, 32 minutes” and with all systems go and all lights green, it is time for the astronauts’ final communication before landing. They are scheduled to speak to their wives from the capsule. The three men’s subdued demeanor seems to be at odds with the prospect of their imminent return to earth and suggests that something is not quite right.
“My father is far away from me now. He is flying to Mars.
I miss him very much. I always miss him when he goes away. I’m not sad, though. I used to be sad when he went away.
One day he told me that people can’t live only for themselves. He said he was trying to do something that would be good for everybody.
I know that is what he is doing now. He is doing something for everybody, to give them a better life. That means he is doing something for me, too.
So even though he is far away, he is thinking about me and I am with him.
That is why I’m not sad. That is why I’m so proud of my dad.
I love him so much.”
His son’s words only serve to bring home to Charles the fact that he is letting his boy down and just when it seems he is about to expose the hoax he simply tells his wife that he is going to take their son to Yosemite again as they did last summer. With that, another hole is being poked through the fabric by the finger of truth for reasons that will become apparent a little later…..
Upon learning that Elliot’s phone has been disconnected, Caulfield goes to his friend’s’s apartment the next day, only to discover that someone else is living there and that all traces of Whitter’s presence has been erased.
As Robert puzzles over the disappearance of his friend while driving away, the brakes on his car fail to work and he is unable to stop the car as it steadily picks up speed and careens through the streets. Eventually his vehicle flies off the end of a bridge and plunges into the water. Fortunately, Robert manages to survive the ordeal. That is yet another way the powers that be set about stitching up emerging holes and loose and fraying ends in the fabric of their scheme of deception.
“We are advised that there appears to be a malfunction”
With “23 minutes, 12 seconds from the beginning of the re-entry phase” all indications have shown that “all systems are normal” and “all lights are green” with “the prime recovery ship, the U.S.S. Oriskany … in position and that “an on-target landing should result in recovery time of 18 minutes from splash-down to the opening of the hatch.” Celebrations will culminate in a “victory banquet topped by a special dessert: A 40 feet red cake, depicting the Martian surface.”
This will be the most Pyrrhic of victories based as it is on lies and deception and as Charles, Peter and John on board the Learjet bound for the capsule’s landing site in the ocean will soon find out, it will come at too great a cost to their very lives. An alert has been received at mission control in Houston, indicating that the heat shields of the capsule have disintegrated during reentry. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the astronauts are now certainly dead. The implications of this event will soon become apparent to the three men.
After the astronauts are returned to the military base in the desert, Charles suspects that there was a problem with the reentry, which means they are now considered deceased which also means that “if anybody ever sees us again, the whole thing falls apart.” Their continued existence cannot be tolerated!
Charles is also correct in assuming that “right now Kelloway is making a speech about what brave, wonderful guys” they all were. We repeatedly cut to Kelloway’s sanctimonious speech which drips with hypocrisy and duplicity as he describes the presumed dead astronauts as being “an integral part of the family here in the program” as well as how the “President has been a constant source of encouragement to all of us in the program” and how “this mission meant as much to him as it did to us.”
“I think we’re on Mars”
Having joined the dots as to their likely fate, Charles proposes that he, Peter and John escape the compound at once. They soon manage to overcome Kelloway’s men and commandeer the Learjet.
After a very close call, the jet takes off but soon runs out of fuel. Charles is forced to make an emergency landing in the desert. After dividing the contents of a survival kit between themselves, the three astronauts begin heading off in different directions to seek help and are to fire their flare guns if captured by Kelloway’s men.
Robert meanwhile replays footage of the astronauts’ conversations with their wives and takes note of Kay’s facial expression when Charles referred to a vacation at Yosemite. It turns out, however that Kay and Charles’ family vacation the previous year was not in Yosemite, but was instead at Flat Rock, Arizona.
Back at the desert jet landing site, Kelloway’s hornet-like helicopters locate the abandoned Learjet and begin a search for the astronauts.
Not long after each astronaut begins his trek, the effects of exhaustion and dehydration begin to make themselves known. They need not go as far as Mars in order to experience survival in a Martian-like terrain. It is there before them in the form of an arid desert here on Earth. As was the case for their mission, they will now have to draw on all of their training, experience and personal reserves just to survive.
We see John as he collapses in a dry riverbed and mumbles deliriously to himself, “dehydrating…Signs…Manual says…look for signs. Water. Manual says…signs for water.” Somewhere within himself, almost subconsciously, John tries to draw on his training to survive, but to no avail. There is no water to be had and as John is about to succumb to despair, the helicopters corner him. His fate is signaled to the other two men by his signal flare.
Peter, however finds himself confronted by an almost insurmountable obstacle – a cliff (or mesa?) His way of dealing with life’s obstacles is to see the humor in everything and laugh it off. So as he struggles to climb the cliff he recites a joke to himself: “So the guy says to his brother: ‘How’s Mom?’ And the brother says: ‘She’s on the roof.’ Get it? ‘She’s on the roof.’” Yes he has reached the top only to find that the joke is on him when he discovers the helicopters waiting for him at the top – on the roof so to speak. The search now proceeds towards the west, in Charles’ direction.
In contrast to his two crew-mates, Charles is able to rely on both his training and his instincts for survival by avoiding detection by hiding in the sand from the helicopters and seeking shelter in a cave in which he kills and consumes an irate rattlesnake.
Meanwhile, Robert continues his investigation by visiting the ‘wild west’ movie set town of Flat Rock. Suddenly a gunshot is fired in his direction as a warning to end his investigation, or else!
Undaunted, Robert returns to question Kay some more and winds up watching home movies from her family’s Flat Rock trip, which feature a film being shot in the town. Kay recalls that Charles “couldn’t get over how something so fake could look so real. He kept on saying that with that kind of technology you could convince people of almost anything.” (A sentiment vigorously supported by conspiracy theorists!) It has occurred to Caulfield that Brubaker would never make such a mistake during his earlier conversation with Kay and that he had likely been sending his wife a message.
“My Dad went to Mars”
“Yes! Yes, he did!”
Kelloway’s hypocrisy and lack of real empathy knows no bounds as he pays a visit to the grieving ‘widow’ Kay and informs her that “it would be good for everyone if you could go with me to the service” and that her husband “died doing what he wanted to do.” Kay, on the other hand, does not believe that “it was important enough for him to die for.” Something that grieving spouses, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters must struggle with upon learning of the deaths of their loved ones in times of war.
“They spend a lot of their time checking little things…like facts”
One of my favorite parts in the film involved David Doyle as Walter Loughlin, Robert’s assignment editor. I like the way he takes great relish in drowning Robert with a spray of sarcasm upon hearing of yet another scoop:
“So this friend of yours who works at NASA, gives you a tip, then disappears. And it turns out that he never lived in his apartment, he never worked at NASA. This is the guy that gave you the tip on your cosmic scoop – and you think I won’t believe you?”
And then there is the absolute bliss he feels at being able to tell Robert after bailing him from jail that he is fired. Robert’s previous dismal track record as a journalist and the sheer stretching of credulity surrounding the events of his current investigation conspire to almost torpedo his efforts of getting at the truth.
Still, as his now previous boss pointed out to him, “Woodward and Bernstein were good reporters. That’s how they did it.” Is he a ‘good’ enough reporter and like they, can he ‘do it?’
“You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney”
Prior to his being detained and then fired, our intrepid reporter Robert continues his investigation, when suddenly federal agents break into his home and arrest him for possessing cocaine which they planted in his medicine cabinet. The conspiracy extends its tentacles of corruption all the way to the very heart of the nation’s law enforcement agency.
In the spirit of spending “time checking little things…like facts,” Robert, on the basis of information from his colleague, Judy Drinkwater, drives to the desert to investigate the facility of Jackson, the “abandoned base they used for training during World War II” and the only one within a 300-mile radius of Houston. There, inside a large structure he finds on the dirt strewn floor a pendant with the inscription, “Bru from Kay.” Another hole poked through the fabric.
“The test of the greatness of any nation is how that nation pulls together in a time of crisis”
Charles awakens to find himself with a scorpion traversing his cheek. After evicting the eight-legged intruder, he discovers that he’s only a stone’s throw away from a deserted gas station. Meanwhile, Robert hires a rough and ready crop duster by the name of Albain to fly him over the desert to search for Charles.
At the gas station, Charles telephones Kay but as luck would have it, she has just left the house with the children to attend the memorial service for the dead astronauts.
Albain and Robert spot Kelloway’s helicopters and track them to the gas station where Charles is. They arrive just in time to rescue the fleeing Charles, who manages to hang precariously on to the wing of the bi-plane.
During the midair pursuit, Albain is able to unleash his load of crop dusting spray, which causes the pursuing helicopters to crash into the cliffs.
While the President of the United States is addressing the astronauts’ wives, families and the entire nation at the memorial service, Charles and Robert arrive unexpectedly. The film then closes with Charles running in slow motion with Robert behind him to where Kay and the others are sitting. The fabric has finally been torn asunder and the truth emerges for everyone to see under the glare of TV coverage.
How now will the nation pull together in this time of crisis brought on by the revelation that the Capricorn One mission was a hoax involving corruption and cover-up by those charged with the responsibility of giving the nation “something to take pride in….a dream that should not be allowed to die” and a reminder “of the limitlessness of our hopes?”
Points of Interest
It is definitely refreshing to be able to enjoy the style of film making displayed in a film like Capricorn One with its long, slow and deliberate shots that actually allow the viewer to examine and take in details. How unlike the shaky camera and rapid-fire cutting together of shots in many of today’s films which make the viewer want to seek some kind of psychiatric counselling.
It is also refreshing that instead of the kind of CGI saturation we are accustomed to these days, we are instead entertained with a dangerous live action plane and helicopter chase stunt sequence, along with an out of control car racing through traffic-laden streets. In fact, a stunt pilot in the film, Frank Tallman, who flew the red Stearman plane, claimed that the dog-fight sequence was “the most dangerous and complex aerial sequence ever executed for a movie.”
Despite the story’s tension, humor is occasionally introduced without taking anything away from that sense of tension. For instance, Telly Savalas (who in real life was afraid of flying) plays the ornery crop-duster pilot, who out-haggles the city-slicker reporter who in his eyes is a “dumb ass.” Also as previously mentioned above, there is the scene involving Elliot Gould’s character enduring the torrent of sarcasm from his boss, played by David Doyle who also plays “Bosley” on the original Charlie’s Angels series.
In the matter of scientific accuracy and detail, criticism can be made. For instance, the notion of using the Saturn V for the manned mission to Mars and the lunar-styled LEM for the Mars landing. There’s a whole host of potential difficulties inherent in a manned-mission to Mars, among them being food, water and fuel, despite the over-optimistic suggestions about obtaining all that is required for such a mission from the planet itself. If ever such a mission eventuates, I’d be surprised if it would be any earlier than the middle of this century and that’s being over optimistic. Those who would break their necks to leave earth on a (most likely one-way) future Mars mission, really have no idea of what they’d be in for physically, psychologically and emotionally!
Two different authors wrote novelizations of the film. Ron Goulart’s version was published in the U.S. and Bernard Ross’s (aka Ken Follett) was published in the U.K.
Capricorn One was nominated in 2001 by the American Film Institute for their “AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Thrills” Top 100 list.
“Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?”
According to the film’s writer-director, Peter Hyams when referring to the Apollo 11 moon landing was reported as saying: “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have . . . came from a TV camera.” Well, check again, mate!
Capricorn One’s story was unmistakably inspired by conspiracy theories surrounding the supposedly faked Apollo Moon landings which have persisted to this day. It cleverly explores just how far a government might go to cover up its own corrupt activities and even its own incompetence and failings and then set about silencing anyone who dares get in its way.
Do conspiracies exist? You bet they do. Do cover-ups happen? You bet they do. One need look no further than the events surrounding the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. Not to mention the recent official admission concerning the existence of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena! However, there is a fine line between critical investigation and questioning to elicit the verifiable existence of criminal, corrupt and deceptive activity and the deluded edifice of conspiracy theory constructed on the flimsy foundations of belief, innuendo, fantasy, speculation, false premise and wishful thinking. The latter makes us feel special as if we are part of a privileged group in possession of information denied to and hidden from those not in the know. And knowing what we know now makes us feel that we have power! “My precious! My precious!” And off we rush onto YouTube and Facebook firmly clutching our little round baubles of knowledge in a bony embrace.
Yes…Yes…we know. You keep telling us that the election was stolen; that there’s a global conspiracy to establish a New World order; that vaccinations are part of a plot to control humanity; Covid-19 was designed by government as a bio-weapon; that the government colludes with aliens and possesses alien technology; we’re being lied to about the earth being round when it is in fact flat; we aren’t being told the truth about the earth being hollow and that Nazis have had a base under Antarctica since the Second World War? What else aren’t THEY telling us? And on, and on and on and QAnon, the conspiracies theories go…..as long as there are gullible idiots enough prepared to believe uncritically and irrationally the alt-truth swirling around their particular social media info-silo eco-systems!
Instead of grand conspiracies among governments and various authorities, there is one thing you can count on – incompetence combined with self-interest. That’s what really makes things go, or not. More often than not, Captain Chaos reigns supreme! Thank God for critical thinking based on fact and evidence, true investigative journalism and the efforts of whistle-blowers.
Alternative 3 1977
[I remember this TV Hoax broadcast that was presented as a world wide exclusive telecast. It was very cleverly done but the obvious clue was its April 1st date!]
©Chris Christopoulos 2022