When the U.S. learns the Soviets are about to launch a manned mission to the moon, they feel it imperative that they get there first. The moon program isn't ready to launch yet so they decide to send one man in a modified Gemini capsule that will be able to land on the moon. The astronaut will have to stay there for up to a year - in a special built shelter that will be sent ahead of time - until an Apollo mission can rescue him. The obvious choice for the mission is Chiz, who knows the Gemini inside out but the Soviets are sending civilians, not military men, so geologist Lee Stegler is asked to go. He has only three weeks however to learn about the intricacies of the spacecraft and no one is sure if he will make it.
Directed by: Robert Altman
. Starring: James Caan
, Joanna Moore
, Robert Duvall
, Barbara Baxley
, Charles Aidman
, Steve Ihnat
, Michael Murphy
, Ted Knight
, Stephen Coit
, John Rayner
, Charles Irving
, Bobby Riha
, Ray Ballard
. Music by: Leonard Rosenman
I started this, perhaps unfairly but I couldn't help it, trying to find the Altman parts or style or maybe just Altman-isms, and at first I wasnt so much disappointed as I was taken down to earth with what I should have expected. This was a transitional film for the director, not making his first feature entirely but after working on countless TV episodes in the late 50s and the bulk of the 60s got his first break with a major studio. In general, I get the sense he had to stick to the script, both literally and figuratively, since there was probably a good bit of money on the line (I'm just guessing based on whats on the screen, and that includes usage of actual locations with NASA's approval). To make a film on time and on budget? Sure, why not show them he could do it, right?
What muddies it further is the varying accounts of what happened after shooting wrapped. According to Altman, the film was taken away from him by the studio - Jack Warner, still there near the end of his time, didn't like the overlapping dialog - and in the Oral Biography book on Altman the ending was noted as being altered in particular (I don't know if I could sense altering exactly and it's kind of a bold move Caan's astronaut does with the flags, but it does just kind of... End, like there could be more and there isn't).
But according to the producer of the film (this is from the TCM lady who spoke after the movie aired as part of their moon series this week), apart from a few technical tweaks, the film was Altman's cut and Warner approved it. Could it have been some after-the-fact griping from Altman to make what feels at a lot of times more like him in TV director mode? Im not sure ill ever know for sure, though I wonder if that may be closer to the truth (maybe the film didnt make money, which was the more important thing after all career wise at that point... luckily MASH was around the corner, but I digress).
So then what is Countdown? A rather stready, at times subtle drama that deals with the politics and bureaucracy of putting together a space flight ( and dont forget the darn Ruskies, albeit that is really not played up as far as making caricatures of Russians or ramping up anti-Communist sentiment, it just shows the space race how it more or less was) more than a thriller or giant visual spectacle. And Altman had Caan and Duvall even before Coppola got them for the Rain People, and they find every right way to play the dialog their given.
Is it always great dialog? Eh, maybe not, but it's usually pretty good to decent, and sometimes Caan gets to play an emotional beat that is significant; my favorite scene is one that I feel like Stallone also did in Rocky, where our protagonist before the big event is in bed with his love and quietly talks his doubts out (Altman's camera glides slowly down and away from them across the room, a really cool little shot). We spend most of the film, in fact, dealing with the ups and downs (mostly downs) of both Caan and Duvall's character dealing with an organization that doesnt seem to fully know what they're doing.
Maybe this is what Altman latched on to (and by the way, there is a bit of over-lapping dialog here, not to how far he'd take it later, but it's there), which is questioning authority figures, even in - especially in - such extraordinary a thing as going to the goddamn moon. He does also deal with some suspense, if nothing else because he has to, and does that well once our astronaut is about to land (OR WILL HE?!)
Last point: along with not being quite sure with what the Altman connection fully was at first - until, generic but competent music score included, I took the film on its own terms and enjoyed it - I wasn't sure about Caan in this part either. Wasnt he a bit too... Big emotionally speaking to play a reserved astronaut? Turns out he cracks into him and makes him sympathetic even as the character comes off as brash or even arrogant. Like Duvall, he was hungry for a good role, and he got one and tore into it.
Review by Quinoa1984 from the Internet Movie Database.