I’m always a sucker for a good old space yarn centered around Mankind’s reach for the Stars and the Moon. The story of NASA and the lunar project’s have been a fascination for many, young and old. I’m too young to have seen a man on the Moon, though I was a wee little baby at tender age of one when Eugene Cernan last stepped on the lunar surface. As I grew, my affection and interest with the space programs grew. The 80’s were a fantastic time for all things space related, you had the Space Shuttle program and the first astronaut jetpack untethered space walk, Russia’s amazing Mir Space Station and then unfortunately that doomed Challenger mission. These were just key moments in this here wide-eyed teenaged wolf but from those years, my obsession with space grew.
Tagline – The motion picture that puts a man on the moon … and you will follow him every terrifying second of the way …
Directed by Robert Altman in his second feature film outing but it’s safe to say, this is his big budget debut before he goes on to make the famous M.A.S.H!. Countdown is a film I’d never heard of and maybe it’s not that brilliant if I’m honest but it does feature neat ideas coming a few years before the actual Apollo missions would take off.
Three astronauts are training in the Apollo simulator, Col. Charles “Chiz” Stewart (Robert Duvall), Lee Stegler (James Caan) and Rick (Altman regular Michael Murphy). Suddenly their training session is abruptly cancelled with the news that the Russians have sent a Cosmonaut to the Moon and jeopardising the chance of America getting that first space boot on the lunar dust. After much discussion and panic, as the Apollo mission would not be ready for sometime, they devise a plan. Pushed on by the fact that Russia’s mission was a fly by test, they calculate they have a small window to snatch that legendary first touchdown.
Now Chiz is the most experienced military man for the job, an obsessed perfectionist, he is the perfect choice. The snag is, NASA and the White House insist that the one man mission to the Moon must be an American civilian, so not to provoke extra Cold War tension. Poor Chiz is not at all happy about this, and what with the four week window open to train and support a new pilot, Chiz has much reason to be pissed. In steps Lee Stegler for the job, he will be put through the tough training extra hard by Chiv. One reason to get him up to speed and ready for anything but also with the slight chance he might actually drop out, opening the position back up for Chiv.
I enjoyed that the project idea isn’t as insane as you might think. The Pilgrim Program (based on a 1964 novel by Hank Searls) consists of using the already space tested Gemini project, modifying one of the Gemini pods into a lander to take one passenger to the Moon. Slight problem! the Apollo lander, designed to land and take off, is sadly at least a year away in production, they need another plan. Unfortunately the Pilgrim craft can only be a one way mission, so they come up with a genius idea. The plan is to send a shelter pod with the ability to sustain the life of the astronaut for one year, giving the Apollo lander the chance to pick him up later on. It’s ridiculously high stakes but it surely is a possibility they will have to take?
Lee Stegler’s good friend and doctor Gus (Charles Aidman) isn’t so pleased.
Gus – “You asking me, his doctor, to feed him into a sausage machine and tell him it doesn’t hurt!!”
With the countdown slowly ticking away, can these guys get everything ready to launch before the four week window, when the Russian team will return with their tried and test rocket? Robert Duvall and James Caan give great performances throughout the picture. Unfortunately even with the onset NASA site footage, the film falls a little flat, there just isn’t that much tension and you don’t feel for characters as much as you should do under such circumstances.
Being a space fan, I did enjoy this picture and what it was trying to say. I especially appreciated the symbolism at the end, which was a very nice touch, especially for the time. I’d say it’s worth tracking down if you are a space film enthusiast, if not, you may find it a bit boring.
Thanks for flying on by spaceport Wolf. Feel free to recharge your fuel cells here if you wish. Till the next time. Godspeed.