Movies From the Black lagoon: Capricorn One

Movies From the Black lagoon
Capricorn One - 1978, Rated PG

Conspiracy thriller is blended with the action film formula in this taut effort from the talented Peter Hyams (Outland, Time Cop) who posits an interesting scenario in which a corrupt space program official opts to fake a landing on Mars rather than risk losing his funding by scrubbing the mission.
The film begins with the mission only thirty minutes from lift off. Just as the astronauts finalize check-overs, a supervisor shows up and hustles the confused men out of the rocket.
The space dudes are none too pleased when they are whisked to a desert location and reunited with their boss, Dr. Kelloway. The good doctor appeals to their shared history and remarks that all they have worked for will be taken away if they don't play ball. He earnestly states that the future of their program rests on the men's willingness to fake a Mars landing in a film studio while the real rocket flies to the red planet and back on remote control.
The guys turn out to have some character and refuse to participate which brings out another side of Kelloway. The doc points out that he has to answer to the "money people" (you know these guys as the same mischievous magical elves who get the blame whenever a senator loses it and begins trying to pick up strangers in airport bathrooms when they aren't chasing White House pages).
Turns out that these cash guys only play hardball and have rigged a bomb to explode on the plane carrying the astronaut's wives home from the launch site. If they agree to shoot a bogus landing then the bomb will remain inert. The men have no choice now and readily agree to phone this one in.
The shooting goes well but the scheme hits a major snag when the rocket disintegrates while returning to earth. The astronauts realize that they must now die or the whole plan goes up in smoke. They quickly get the better of their guards and escape into the desert. Having no idea where they are, they must split up and hope for the best as each heads out into the sand with precious little supplies.
Meanwhile, a reporter suspects that something is amiss and must deal with several obstacles along the way as he tries to determine what really happened. Said road bumps for this guy include a persnickety editor, sources who disappear and have their whole lives erased by powerful government agents, and crafty adversaries who know how to turn car brakes into turbo thrusters (which makes for a thrilling sequence wherein the reporter finds that he can only steer his vehicle as it rapidly picks up speed in the middle of a major city).
This is great stuff and it's well staged by Hyams who also wrote the script. He came up with the idea when he was a reporter covering the Vietnam War. Hyams has said that he actually met people on stories who claimed that the war was a hoax. He knew the truth from being there but the idea stayed with him and you get to benefit from it here. This is the kind of material that the X-Files did very well and Hyams is up to the task. He wisely casts a who's who of late 70's talent. Elliot Gould is well suited for the hangdog reporter role and he has a knack for playing guys who are smarter than they let on. James Brolin (hot off The Car) is also good here as the lead astronaut, but the film belongs to the villain - Kelloway (played by Hal Holbrook). He is a great bad guy and Holbrook plays him with all of the smarmy charm of a politician who is ready to promise you anything for your vote.
His best moment comes after he gives pointers to a death squad that is hunting the astronauts. He follows up this brutal betrayal by dropping in on Brolin's wife and suggesting that her presence at a memorial for the fallen heroes would look good to supporters of the space program. All this and you get Telly Savalas (TV's Kojak) as a foul-mouthed crop duster whose primitive bi-plane proves more than a match for state of the art military choppers.
Best Line: "You occupy your time with tips from people that never existed, driving your car into water and claiming it wasn't your fault, and getting shot at by unseen gunmen."

Tom Doty occasionally emerges from the Lagoon to check his e-mail. If you'd like to get a message to him, write to: dotyfox@pennswoods.net.