All great directors start somewhere. Often, that is the only reason anyone really knows a movie exists. Duel is an okay made-for-television film, but for all the killer car movies that came after it, it would largely be forgotten today if it was not for Steven Spielberg getting his start with it. Even Stanley Kubrick started off a pulpy bit of noir called Killer's Kiss, which really isn't on anyone's list of classics.
With Countdown we get to see Robert Altman in his feature film debut. He had done television and industrial films before, but here he gets to direct a rather staid, and sometimes dull, film about the impending moon landing. Still, he and his cast do wring some life out of it despite the budget limitations and the fact that not a lot happens until about the last third.
Chiz (Robert Duvall) is set to become the first man on the moon as NASA's Apollo project comes to its fruition. However, the Soviets manage to do a successful orbit of our satellite and begin planning to send their first man. In a twist, rather than being a military man, they plan on sending a civilian in order to demonstrate to the world they have no intent of turning the landing to their military advantage. The United States, faced with this PR challenge, decide to pull Chiz from his position due to him being a member of the Air Force.
Also, with the race on to beat the Soviets, NASA decides to do the landing as seat-of-pants as possible. While Chiz, much to his disdain, is bumped, his colleague Lee Stegler (James Caan) is put in his place, and the planned three-man mission is cut down to just one. Using a modified Gemini capsule called Pilgrim, the goal is to land Stegler on the moon and have him make his way to a shelter launched months before. Once he makes it to the shelter, which has two months' worth of supplies, he is expected to remain up to a year until the Apollo project catches up and can send a lander to bring him home. Meanwhile, unmanned rockets are scheduled to bring him additional supplies. Problem is, he only has three weeks to learn how to work the capsule in order to be ready for the flight.
Not only is Chiz understandably upset about losing out on his opportunity, but Stegler's wife Mickey (Joanna Moore) is concerned that he might not make it back, leaving her and his young son alone.
Despite Chiz's insistence that Stegler is not fit to go, as well as the objections of medical officer Gus (Charles Aidman) about Stegler's physical fitness, training goes ahead. About everything that can go wrong does, including the Soviets launching ahead of time after word gets out about the impending moon shot. Still, Stegler overcomes the obstacles and heads for the moon, only to find that the ride may be fraught with more peril than his training prepared him for. Even when he does make it, he is in a race against time to find the shelter.
For those looking for Altman's usual quirks, few are here. There is some overlapping dialogue, but the frequent zoom shots and fractured story lines that eventually weave themselves into a whole are completely absent. Instead, we have a solid hard science fiction movie about something that would become reality not long after the movie was released, thus making it wholly irrelevant. It would have remained so if Altman had not become the auteur director he did, and if Robert Duvall and James Caan had not become major stars.
As expected, the two of them are great in this. It was their first movie together, but it was far from the first movie that either had been in. Duvall falls into the familiar role of the expert astronaut left behind as the amateur gets his shot (something seen in a number of '50s and '60s sci-fi movies of similar subject matter), while James Caan injects some reality into Lee Stegler's true trepidation at being called upon to do something he never trained for. Joanna Moore is left to smoke and pine, of course.
I would love to say Altman contributed much more to this or that he set it head and shoulders above other movies of the type, but he didn't. It's a by-the-books moonshot movie, just without as much flag waving as some that came before it.
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Robert Duvall, James Caan, Joanna Moore
Director: Robert Altman