“You have to wear that capsule like you wear your own skin.”
When a scientist (James Caan) is chosen over his more experienced military friend (Robert Duvall) to be the first man sent to the moon, rivalries ensue.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Cold War
- James Caan Films
- Robert Altman Films
- Robert Duvall Films
- Space Exploration
After making two feature-length films in 1957 (The Delinquents and The James Dean Story), Robert Altman spent a number of years working in television before returning to the big screen with this adaptation of Hank Searls’ novel The Pilgrim Project. It’s very much a film of its time, given that it depicts the extreme anxiety felt by Americans during the Cold War, when NASA was doing its best to beat the Russians to the moon; in reality, America wouldn’t send its first man to the moon until July of the following year, so audiences in 1968 were surely intrigued by this dramatic simulation of what feasibly might have occurred. Modern devotees of space race movies and documentaries (such as Apollo 13 and the mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon”) will doubtless find fault with many of the technical details as presented here, but the rest of us will likely find Altman’s use of authentic props and settings refreshingly realistic.
There’s little to distinguish Countdown as an “Altman film”, though he does utilize some overlapping dialogue, and there’s a bit more emphasis on relationships than plot; the following year’s M*A*S*H (1970), however, would be his true breakthrough film. With that said, Countdown is a competently made, solidly acted drama: Duvall is in prime form as an embittered astronaut who is justifiably pissed off that his less-experienced friend has been given his spot (simply for political purposes), while Joanna Moore stands out in a thankless role as Caan’s worried wife. Women aren’t given much due in the screenplay (Barbara Baxley as Duvall’s wife is practically non-existent), but Moore manages to expertly convey the shift her character undergoes once she realizes that she really has no control over her husband’s decision to pursue the dangerous mission; she’s the epitome of pre-feminist wifely survival, and surprisingly intriguing to watch.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Robert Duvall as Chiz
- James Caan as Lee
- Joanna Moore as Mickey
No, though Altman fans will surely be curious to check it out.