Countdown (1968)

Countdown (1968)

“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:

  • Astronauts
  • 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

Must See?
No, though Altman fans will surely be curious to check it out.


One thought on “Countdown (1968)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, esp. for Altman fans and those interested in The Space Program, though it also holds interest for average film fanatics.

    I’d been wanting to see this for a very long time but it is not an easy film to track down (so I’m grateful for the chance to see it).

    As someone who has no particular interest in The Space Program, I nevertheless find the film fascinating and compelling. I would not be able to detect flaws in the technical details – yet, to the ears of the uninitiated, the language of the screenplay sounds authentic (with its constant flow of space travel terminology).

    I had anticipated something of a less-accomplished nature – but perhaps that’s because I’ve often heard that it’s an Altman film that doesn’t feel like an Altman film. I don’t quite agree with that. It does feel somewhat more typical of a standard Hollywood film – minus the rhythms Altman would give in to (and embellish) in his later work. But, to me, it feels more like the work of the director when compared with the early films of some other maverick artists (i.e., Cassavetes’ ‘A Child Is Waiting’ or Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’).

    At any rate, the film has a very nice feel to it – with solid pacing – and it seems just the right length for the story it’s telling. I was particularly impressed with the way it succeeds in following a fairly large group of characters (most of whom are peripheral) without ever being confusing as to who is who.

    Tension mounts nicely and the film’s simple conclusion is delivered with refreshing economy.

    I’d say this film (on its own modest terms) fits nicely against Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’.

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