Writerdirector Peter Hyams mixed together the 1970s cultural ambiance of paranoia and corruption with some basic but well performed characters and a biplane vs. helicopters chase sequence that's still pretty impressive by modern standards to come up with one of the signature movies of its era. Capricorn One isn't one of the great films of the 70s, but it is a good film and I can't imagine it being made in any other decade. This is a piece of pop culture that reminds you of what pre-Ronald Reagan America was like and watching it would help a lot of liberals younger than 30 understand why the country's been the way it has all their lives.
This movie is about the first manned mission to Mars. Well, it's sort of about that. There is a trio of astronauts - the heroic leader (James Brolin), the smartass (Sam Waterston) and the black guy (O.J. Simpson) - and there is a rocket that supposed to take them to the red planet. What they don't have is a working life support system to keep them alive all the way there and back. Rather than scrub the mission, the head of NASA (Hal Holbrook) decides to fake it all. The rocket is launched with no one on it. The astronauts are enlisted to make fake broadcasts to the world from a soundstage on an abandoned military base. There's even a plan to have the space capsule "accidentally" return to Earth in the wrong spot, allowing time to sneak the astronauts into the capsule before the rescue teams arrive. It's all going to be done in the name of giving the dispirited American people something to believe in...and preserving a space-industrial complex that's grown too big to fail.
However, no plan is ever perfect and things about the Capricorn One mission that don't make sense set a fly-by-night TV reporter (Elliot Gould) on the trail of something he doesn't even understand at first. Then something goes wrong with the space capsule and instead of our trio of astronauts spending the rest of their lives as heroic liars, the world thinks they died in re-entry. Which means no one can ever see or hear from them again. So three astronauts, one reporter and a vulgar crop duster (Telly Savalas) pit themselves against a government that wants them dead for all the best reasons in the world.
I liked Capricorn One but I've got to admit, it's a pretty lackadaisically paced action-thriller by contemporary standards. It's not really slow and there's always some nice little things going on in the story, but this isn't a roller coaster of a film that's always dragging you hither and yon. There are also some special effects in this movie that didn't look that great in 1978 and look a lot worse now. If you can forgive those things, there's a lot here to enjoy.
The best elements of the film have to be the performances of Elliot Gould and Hal Holbrook. Gould is delightfully dry as a 1970s everyman whose surface cynicism masks a heart that still wants to believe in something. Holbrook is disarmingly sinister as a man who's convinced himself that his supposedly noble ends justify the most awful of means. In a way, their characters are both heroes and villains struggling over the MacGuffin of the three astronauts. The jaded self-centeredness of Gould's reporter is exactly what Holbrook's character is trying to save America from and it is the deceitful control that Holbrook's character tries to impose on the world that reminds Gould's reporter that there are things in the world that matter more than he does.
Gould also has a couple of fun scenes with Karen Black as another reporter where they banter back and forth like they were in a newspaper movie from the 1930s. Brenda Vaccaro is quite appealing as well as the wife of one of the astronauts. Hyams is doing some interesting things with his direction here as well. There are very few close-ups in this movie and the camera stays at a distance as though the audience was watching something actually happen on the other side of the room.
Capricorn One isn't a classic. It's just a decent film that's also useful as a window into the mindset of the 1970s. I believe there's talk of a remake of this movie and I'm not sure what to expect. On the one hand, Hollywood has a fairly terrible track record when it comes to remakes of better films than Capricorn One. The Wicker Man with Nicholas Cage and The Day The Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves being prime examples of that. But maybe a movie like this, where the things to be changed and improved are a little more obvious, will turn out better. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of Mike Myers' butt.
Review by MBunge from the Internet Movie Database.