James Caan's Sonny Corleone and Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen. I love the actors as much as the characters so even with supporting roles they end up standing out to me. Both actors were rising stars at the time having paid their dues through the 1960s with some lesser roles in lesser movies. If I've learned anything from watching too many movies like I do, it's to pay attention to those pre-star movies. Take 1968's Countdown, an earlier pairing of Caan and Duvall.
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the first time man had ever set foot on the surface. It was a defining moment in history, but what about all the years leading up to it? This wasn't a quick thrown together process. Space exploration was and probably always will fascinate people -- myself included -- and what better way to explore space than through the movies? That's the main reason I'll give 'Countdown' a slight recommendation because through all its flaws (and there's plenty) it gives you a great sense of the anxiety and pressure NASA felt in beating the Russians to getting a man on the moon.
Preparing for an Apollo mission, a crew that includes astronauts Lee Stegler (Caan) and Chiz (Duvall) is pulled from their assignment with rumors of something big swirling. There's whispers that the Russians have made a breakthrough and are about to send a shuttle to the moon, beating the American effort by months. Chiz is the higher ranking astronaut, but he's bumped for his a non-military astronaut in Lee for a dangerous, even suicidal mission. In hopes of beating the Russians to the moon, NASA will send a one-man shuttle to the man so that the United States can claim the first steps taken on the moon's surface. The only problem? They won't be able to rescue him anytime soon so the astronaut may have to spend up to a year on the moon in a small shelter. Very aware he could die on the mission, Lee goes about training with his friend's Chiz help.
I've reviewed other space movies here before including 1969's Marooned, a big-star vehicle that never amounted to anything other than an impressive cast listing. There are certain limitations that any movie regardless of the budget couldn't overcome. For one, there's no really good way to make "space travel" look real because miniatures and blue screen or any sort of animation is going to cry out in the obvious department. For the most part, Countdown avoids that, spending more time on the emotional impact this dangerous mission will have on Lee and his family, friends and co-workers. The "space travel" (semi-SPOILER Lee gets to the moon, but there's more to come SPOILER) is limited, and the moon set doesn't look half bad.
Focusing instead on the emotional impact isn't always a good thing though. Director Robert Altman (still two years away from MASH) is limited by what looks to be a smallish budget that gives his finished product a definite made-for-TV appearance. If a scene is indoors, it looks like a set that would blow over if a stiff wind got inside the studio. Thankfully there is some very cool footage of NASA and its facilities, not to mention some great shots of the shuttles actually blasting off the pads. In 1968 or 2010, it will always be cool to see the immense amount of force needed to physically send something into outer space. Of course, the blaring, in your face soundtrack doesn't help anything either. So with the balance between the two, the weak cinematography cancels itself out.
Leading the cast, Caan and Duvall make the most of a script that gets into a loop and keeps repeating itself over and over again. There is a friendship between the two men but also a fierce rivalry over being chosen or snubbed for this dangerous mission. Duvall's Chiz is looking out for the younger Lee for his own safety/benefit, but also because he'd rather go on the mission. Caan's Lee balances out the drive to be the first man on the moon with the fear that he might die trying to accomplish his mission. The rest of the cast doesn't leave much of an impression other than Joanna Moore as Mickey, Lee's wife who tears herself up worrying about her husband's decision. Also look for pre-Mary Tyler Moore Ted Knight as NASA's public relations director interacting with the rabid media.
One more complaint and I'll call it quits for Countdown. For most of an hour, I wasn't quite sure what the mission actually was. Long conversations detailed what Lee would be doing but never specified that he'd be on the moon for possibly a year by himself. It could have just been me, but I was confused. The last 45 minutes are the best part of the movie when the actual mission gets underway. The ending had a chance to go for a real downer, but everything rights itself in the end. I would have liked the downer ending -- as I usually do -- but this one works just fine too.
Countdown <---TCM trailer (1968): ** 1/2 /****