Imagine — and this might be a stretch — but imagine a world where the government can not be trusted. In the 1970s, the American people faced a crisis of faith in their institutions. From the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 exposing their nation’s actions in Vietnam, to Watergate sinking President Richard Nixon into scandal, Americans had to reckon with the revelation both major political parties of the period had been engaged in massive coverups.
These scandals shattered America’s trust in the system. In 1964, 77 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that they trusted the government to do the right thing “nearly always or most of the time.” Within a decade, that number had been more than halved, crashing down to 36 percent.
This downturn was impossible to ignore at the time, and Hollywood moved to capitalize on the trend. Movies like The Parallax View, All The President’s Men, and Serpico showed protagonists fighting against the government, the police, and all the shadowy forces in between.
Director Peter Hyams watched as the nation splintered into political distrust and, like others, had some ideas. “I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true,” he told Empire in a career retrospective. “That turned out to be bullshit. My generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullshit too.”
Hyams wanted to create a movie that captured the cynicism of both generations. This eventually became 1978’s Capricorn One (which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime). Of course, there are reasons the film isn’t considered part of the larger conspiracy-thriller canon, like All the President’s Men and Serpico, but the film still provides an entertaining look into an era where conspiracy theories were so fashionable they’d become cliché.
Capricorn One starts off on the launchpad. The United States is sending Capricorn One to Mars, captaind by Charles “Bru” Brubaker (James Brolin, father of Josh), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston of Law & Order), and John Walker (the now-infamous O.J. Simpson). The crowds are out, and among their masses are Congressman Hollis Peaker (David Huddleston), a big proponent of NASA, and Vice President Price (James Karen), who believes all that space money would be better spent on Earth.
As that’s happening, the astronauts are faced with a sudden surprise. While they prepare for launch, all three are suddenly ordered to leave their ship. Confused, they board a van, which takes them to a plane, which takes them to a small room at an undisclosed location. Once inside, they are confronted by a NASA official of unknown rank, Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook), who hates to be here — he really does — but has no other option.
As Kelloway explains, something has gone wrong with the mission. Just a few weeks before launch, it was determined that life-support systems in place wouldn’t hold out, and that the crew would have been dead within weeks. NASA couldn’t just cancel the launch, as that would destroy faith in America. The space program was already falling out of favor with the public—people are calling up and complaining whenever a Moon landing interrupts I Love Lucy — and an aborted launch could be just the thing to shutter NASA for good.
Kelloway, with no other options, walks the trio into a soundstage of conspiracy-theorist dreams. There is a Martian lander, red rocky ground, and a suite of cameras and lights ready to capture them all, as if they’d made it to Mars after all. When the astronauts protest, Kelloway makes something very clear: if necessary, he will murder all of their families to pull this off.
All seems to be moving ahead with the hoax until a NASA technician (Robert Walden), unaware of the deception, starts to notice that ground control is receiving televised transmissions before they receive the positions of the spacecraft. That’s weird, Kelloway says. The technician starts talking to his journalist friend, Robert Caulfield (Elliot Gould). But once Caulfield starts to investigate, the technician disappears. Then, someone cuts the brakes on Caulfield’s car, sending him crashing off a bridge.
Hyams wrote the script for Capricorn One in 1972, back when America’s paranoia was only starting to ignite into full-blown fever. he was a reporter for CBS at the time; the combination of Watergate and the less-heralded Apollo 16 launch had set his brain turning. “I was thinking how easy it would be to manipulate an event in a television age,” he told the New York Times in 1978. “All right, you couldn't invent the Olympics, because there would be too many people watching. But there was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses.”
And yet, there are many witnesses to a space launch (which is one of several problems with Capricorn One). The scene in which the astronauts are quietly shuttled away from a launch site is about as silly as it gets in terms of defying plausibility. The movie also doesn’t bring up what the astronauts actually do all day when they are being held captive by the government.
In short, this is a slightly ridiculous movie that would frankly work better as a spoof of conspiracy thrillers than as a legitimate one on its own terms. There are some genuine comedic moments, particularly when Caulfield hooks up with crop duster pilot Albain (Telly Savalas) to look for a missing astronaut. Within a few seconds, Albain calls both his son and Caulfield “perverts,” while continually charging more and more for a flight. The two have great chemistry.
But as it stands, Capricorn One is mostly fascinating as a look back at an era in which Hollywood tried to cash in on overwhelming distrust in the government. This era has come and gone, and it certainly could not happen today. Right?
Capricorn One is now streaming on Amazon Prime.