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Monday, June 6, 2011


There weren't many "Hard" science fiction movies, but the genre was still viable, even in the late 60s with all the real space program action. Countdown was Roger Altman's first feature film as director an starred some A-level actors, such as Robert Duvall and James Caan. Warner Brothers put some A-level effort into Countdown, yet it isn't particularly well known. Told in a semi-drama, semi-documentary style, it is a "Right Stuff" tale of a rushed Plan B moon program. The science-fictional part is not especially strong, given the science-factual state of things in 1968.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Astronauts training in an Apollo simulator have their session ended early. They grumble about it later, but their leader, Chiz (Duvall), knows why. The Pilgrim Program. The Russians will be sending a moon landing mission up in four weeks. The Americans had a secret alternate plan to the Apollo program (Pilgrim) in case this happened. One man would be sent to the moon in a one-way rocket. He would stay on the moon for a few months in a shelter pod launched and landed before him. Later, a manned Apollo mission would come to retrieve him. The equipment is all ready, but the Russians complicated matters by sending up a civilian. Even though Chiz is trained and qualified, he's an Air Force colonel. NASA and the White House insist that an American civilian be their first man. Lee, one of Chiz's crew, is tapped. Chiz is outraged, but agrees to train Lee in the few days they have. Chiz pushes Lee's training hard, half to get him ready, half hoping he'll drop out and Chiz can step in. Lee persists, driven by the same astronaut dream. After a press leak about Pilgrim, the Russians launch a week early. Deflated at not being first, everyone carries on. The shelter pod (a LEM lander) is launched and landed successfully. Lee is launched on schedule. He encounters a power drain malfunction en route which tests his character and hinders radio contact. The Russians have lost contact with their team too. As Lee orbits the moon, he does not see the beacon of the shelter. With only seconds left before he must abort and return to earth he lies about seeing it. Mission control okays his retro burn and he lands. Now all radio contact is lost. Lee gets out of the Gemini lander and walks around. He has just three hours of oxygen in his suit. He finds the crashed Russian lander on its side. The three dead cosmonauts are sprawled around. Everyone on earth is nervously awaiting some news, but get none. Lee takes the Soviet flag from a dead cosmonaut and lays it out on a nearby rock with his own American flag. With little air left and nowhere to go, Lee spins the toy mouse his son gave him. It points stage-right, so he walks that direction. People on earth are losing hope as his time has run out. Lee looks at his watch to see that he has just minutes of air left. A red glow on his arm catches his attention. It is the locator beacon atop the shelter. The happy triumphant music ramps up as Lee walks towards salvation. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The story is a blend of NASA reality (circa the mid 60s) and the Golden Era's imagination of a manned trip to the moon.

Cold War Angle
The Cold War, translated into the Space Race, is very much the driver of the plot. It is the Americans vs. the Russians. An indication of how the Cold War had calmed a bit, post-Cuban-Missiles, was the token of respect shown for the dead cosmonauts. Lee unfurls their soviet flag along with his own American flag.

New Polish on Old Apple -- There is a nostalgic air to Countdown, despite the "modern" setting and then-current NASA footage. There is a feel of Destination Moon ('50) to it. The Americans send a never-been-tested mission in a semi-desperate effort to get there before the Russians. Troubles are encountered (that's hardly new). A lone American is almost stranded, expected to die on the moon. Ironically, he was not the intended astronaut, but a last-minute draftee. At the last minute, he is saved. The old trope had legs.

Reckless Race -- The background urgency of the Cold War animated the space race. The Americans felt it. The Soviets felt it. In the 1959 soviet sci-fi Nebo Zovyot it was the Americans who recklessly rushed a lander program in order to trump the cooly organized soviets. Countdown has a sort of double twist on the reckless race. The Americans have Apollo, so the Soviets rush a manned program to trump it. The Americans learn of this and implement a rush plan of their own: Pilgrim. When the Soviets learn of Pilgrim they rush their rush plan beyond the safety margin.

Proper Women -- Amid all the personal drama in Countdown, which can approach soap opera levels at times, is the background message of what proper wives of heros should be. This is an interesting exposé on the older social culture -- before "liberation" and the "Me generation" turned life into a selfish free-for-all. The "proper" wife was pretty, trim, polite, and a good mother. Lee's wife, Micky, is the key example. She is all of the above, but when the dangerous truth comes out, she stoically stands by her man.

Alternate Ending? -- An unsubstantiated rumor says that director Robert Altman planned different ending but was overruled by the studio. Altman's later movies, such as M•A•S•H and others, with their grittier, less-happy tones, lend some credence to the rumor. Also supporting the rumor is the vast unlikeliness that Lee would just happen to wander around and stumble upon the shelter lander. Audiences still preferred happy endings. Perhaps it was the studio brass's marketing sense that kicked in. Perhaps it was a sense of national pride kicking in. As America's Apollo program was only a year or so from really landing on the moon, portraying an American go to die on the moon was just too unpatriotic. Whatever the source, the film has its unlikely, but happy ending.

Bottom line? Countdown is weak example of the "Right Stuff" genre. The drama portions play a bit flat and sometimes drag. The old NASA footage (which was cutting edge stuff when the film was released) have some historical interest. From a sci-fi collector's point of view, it is an example of the older style of "hard" science fiction. For non-sci-fi fans, the film isn't riveting, but watchable.

1 comment:

thingmaker said...

Based on a book...
Hank Searls "The Pilgrim Project" (1965).
The book has a similar ending, with the lone astronaut sighting the shelter beacon, but at a distance and, although he resolves to reach it if he has to crawl the last mile, there is some uncertainty.