Sunday, January 21, 2007


dir. Robert Altman

No images of Countdown anywhere on world wide web.
This movie is lost in space.

January 18, 2007 - 35mm/IFC Center

Worth noting in the Robert Altman canon is the 2nd half of this otherwise typical astronaut movie. The first half is a very calm, cool, collected character drama. Robert Duvall is frustrated (though in a rather subdued manner) that James Caan is picked for a solo mission to the moon. Jealousy runs rampant, though with the restraint you would expect from astronauts and their families. The way the families of astronauts were forced to become politicians, and thus look the cleanest of clean cut is fairly interesting. Moving from The Right Stuff to Apollo 13 to Countdown, every astronaut, their kids, their wives seem more or less physically interchangeable. Serious acting chops carry Caan, Duvall and Altman regular Michael Murphy through the first half with class, despite its rather uneventful nature.

Countdown opens with a Star Trek 2 “fake-out” featuring the aforementioned three leads. They’re prepping for one of the Apollo missions. News comes down the wire that the Soviets are on their way to the moon. The race is on. Countdown was released in 1968, a year before the United States won that leg of the space race and set foot on the rock. The Soviet vs. United States race was very real, but it did not reach the heights of this movie. The race in Countdown is a simple footrace through the stars, though the competition is nowhere in sight.

From the launch of the one-way solo spacecraft to the very last frame of the movie Altman fashions a deliberately paced and tense stretch of drama. As Jimmy Caan goes streaming through space, his communication (and lack of) with the base is just about all we get for 40 minutes. In 1968, all this switch flipping and technospeak must have sounded like nonsense. It still does today, but like all the grounded scenes in United 93 and the engineering babble in Primer the drama takes precedence over understanding what anybody is talking about. The banter between Duvall and Caan is so constant that when it is cut off, due to technical problems, the silence is deafening. All this is well and fine, but totally uninteresting.

Fatalism overtakes the rest of the story as Caan embarks on a suicide mission, and for what? For pride. For manliness. For poetry. Obvious parallels can be drawn between what happens toward the end of this movie and the overreaching themes of the far superior in every way, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was release mere weeks apart from Countdown. In part, I’m sure 2001 is responsible for the failure of Countdown. The final landing on the moon, in all of its loneliness and silence is shocking. Earth has lost communication and Caan is in the desert. He then embarks on a journey to find a small space station the U.S. landed on the moon not long before. In there he will live awaiting rescue. He has no idea where the station is. Along the way, as time and oxygen starts slipping away he comes across the spacesuited corpses of Soviet astronauts. This scene makes the movie worth watching. It is very, very simple, very quiet, and politically charged. There may be a space-race on Earth, but up there on the moon, there are no countries, no politics, no race. There is only cold loneliness. Mission accomplished.

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