Countdown (1968)

D: Robert Altman
S: James Caan, Joanna Moore, Robert Duvall

Tense, absorbing drama from the novel by Hank Searls which charts the internal distentions and mounting pressures on an astronaut preparing for the first manned landing on the moon. Not only are the Russians fast preparing their own launch, but public relations and political interests push the mission ahead even though there are serious technical and human risks due to a lack of time to iron out the details. James Caan plays the ambitious young civilian assigned to the project when experienced air force officer Robert Duvall is pulled in the interests of keeping the military elements in the background. A bitter rivalry between the two men fuels their relationship when Duvall agrees to train Caan and hopes to push him so hard that he will quit. Meanwhile Caan's wife Joanna Moore faces the prospect that her husband may never come back, but must pretend for the cameras that she is the perfect, supportive astronaut's spouse.

Though the film demonstrates evidence of prerelease cutting with several awkward transitions and occasional shifts in pace, it generally retains a strong grip due to its adult script and situations. Characters have real and effective misgivings about one another and about the mission, and rather than being ruled by an all-American spirit of derring do, individuals are torn by conflicting goals and motives which make them much more believable than the norm. Director Robert Altman also makes use of an observational camera style and the old technique of overlapping dialogue to increase the feeling of realism. It ultimately doesn't matter that the special effects are less than convincing and aspects of the technology are inaccurate, because at the tensest moments during the mission itself, it is not the action of the hardware which is of interest, but the dynamics of the characters' relationships.

The performances by a young cast are also of high calibre, with Caan capturing a mixture of determination and uncertainty with skill. Duvall is a standout as the embittered trainer who nonetheless devotes himself to the success of the mission. Moore registers great internal conflict and manages potentially soapy scenes very well. They are backed by a strong supporting cast, all of whom seem perfectly aligned to the movie's particular approach to its subject. Despite being a Warner Brothers programmer, the film demonstrates a more contemporary attitude to plot and character which is all the more effective for its ability to balance interpersonal and social concerns on screen.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.