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COUNTDOWN(director: Robert Altman; screenwriters: Loring Mandel/based on the novel The Pilgrim Project by Hank Serls; cinematographer: William Spencer; editor: Gene Milford; music: Leonard Rosenman; cast: James Caan (Lee Stegler), Joanna Moore (Mickey Stegler), Robert Duvall (Chiz), Barbara Baxley (Jean), Charles Aidman (Gus, space doctor), Steve Ihnat (Ross, project head of NASA), Charles Irving (Seidel, reporter), Michael Murphy (Rick), Ted Knight (Walter Larson), Stephan Coit (Ehrman); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Conrad; Warner Brothers; 1967)

An involving sci-fi thriller concerned with the space race to the moon by rival superpowers, Russia and USA.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An involving sci-fi thriller concerned with the space race to the moon by rival superpowers, Russia and USA. It’s also concerned about the safety of the astronauts, personal reactions of those involved about NASA policies and technical concerns about the equipment. Director Robert Altman (“Nashville”/”Gosford Park”/”M*A*S*H*“) is least concerned about the plot and most concerned with the emotional affects of the mission on the astronauts and their families. The film was re-edited when studio producers didn’t care for Altman’s technique of overlapping dialogue and supposedly new footage was shot by the producers when the uncompromising Altman took a powder.

When the Russians launch their 3-man mission to land a man on the moon first, the Americans compete to be first and get ready to follow with their launch of Apollo. The WH interferes with the mission of sending a 3-man team headed by Air Force colonel pilot Chiz (Robert Duval), military co-pilot Rick (Michael Murphy) and civilian scientist Lee Stegler (James Caan) and orders NASA director Ross (Steve Ihnat) to rename the mission Pilgrim 1 and use only a scientist civilian instead of the more experienced Chiz on a one-man mission. The reason for the switch to Lee is because the Russians are using civilian scientists as astronauts, and the Americans were aware that they were also in a public relations battle and jettisoned plans to use any military people.

This last-minute move, three weeks before the launch, gets Chiz pissed he wasn’t chosen, makes Lee’s wife Mickey (Joanna Moore) nervous about his safety and concerned hubby will be away for a year to reside on a NASA moon shelter station and the flight surgeon (Charles Aidman) argues with the project director about safety issues for his brave civilian pilot friend.

The topical film was made a year before the Americans landed first on the moon and does a good job anticipating the look of the Apollo capsules. The moon landing scene simulated in the Mojave Desert looked great.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”