There are dots to be connected between the U.S. space program and the dysfunction of government. If we can't trust government, can we trust what we're told about our space efforts?
Remember the Apollo 11 moon landing? It was an event of spectacular importance. There were almost no witnesses. The only verification of it all was from a TV camera. TV is an extension of Hollywood in the sense it's a dream factory. TV can create a world we want to believe. It's an elixir taking us away from our mundane concerns/worries.
We watched as television news never really conveyed the horrors and folly of the Viet Nam war in its early, escalating stages. The media did the bidding of government. Up to a point. We came to our senses belatedly.
TV gave us lots of simulations about what was happening with a particular space mission. Peter Hyams watched these stories and began to wonder: what would happen if someone faked a whole story? Hyams began developing the script for the movie "Capricorn One" in the mid-1970s.
It was 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. We had been dragged through endless headlines about the unraveling Nixon administration. Why couldn't someone "in the know" have just come forward and disclosed everything? Democracy has its weaknesses. Nixon was not commander in chief at the end. Had he tried to issue some sort of military directives, such directives would have to go through other parties. And yet we put such effort into electing a "commander in chief."
We wonder if Donald Trump would be allowed to issue military directives directly. Nixon could not have deployed nuclear weapons on his own - he would have had to go to Henry Kissinger. We wonder if any president really has his/her finger on the proverbial nuclear button. And if not, are the most significant military decisions really in the hands of unelected people? Government stooges? People who engage in turf protection as a primary aim?
We learn that the Challenger disaster (which happened on my birthday, incidentally) happened because NASA was nervous and impatient due to competition with the Defense Department for future contracts.
Maybe in light of all this, an elaborate, notorious conspiracy is really not such a reach. So here is how I introduce Peter Hyams' movie "Capricorn One." This movie sprang right from the loins of Watergate. We have to shrug helplessly as government pursues all its shady machinations.
"Capricorn One" is the first manned mission to Mars, in this cinematic story. The three-man crew includes a guy played by O.J. Simpson. Simpson does his job fine despite our impulse to diss his acting. Simpson plays "Walker." James Brolin plays "Brubaker" and Sam Waterston plays "Willis."
"Capricorn One" is on the launch pad. The bewildered crew gets removed and whisked to an abandoned desert base. NASA has determined that a faulty life-support system would have killed the astronauts. The crew is now asked to help counterfeit the television footage. They balk. But they are threatened that their families would be harmed, make that killed! The three guys fake the Mars landing from a studio at the base. A mere handful of government officials are pulling the strings in this quintessential conspiracy.
A technician gets suspicious. He disappears. In the meantime, he has shared shreds of evidence with - you guessed it - a newspaper reporter in the mold of Woodward and Bernstein. The two famous Watergate expose reporters were really just stenographers for "Deep Throat" Mark Felt, the FBI guy who was motivated by turf battles and jealousy in government. The heroic reporter in "Capricorn One" is played by the ubiquitous (at that time) Elliott Gould.
I didn't find Gould's character really credible. "He protests too much," or something like that. As motivated as Woodward and Bernstein were, they were consummate professionals throughout, never getting invested on a purely personal level. The Gould character gets earnest in a purely personal way. Reporters realize that facts are the only impressive weapons, certainly not one's emotions. Gould's character is named "Robert Caulfield." He starts getting attacked.
Our story continues with the three astronauts getting put on a plane, apparently to be taken to a spacecraft, but the plane turns around. They get a whiff of what is about to happen: they'll be killed. Any evidence of their survival would reveal the hoax. They're able to escape in a plane which soon runs out of fuel, so our heroes are out in the desert, where their adversary now is two government helicopters pursuing them. They walk in three directions.
Only "Brubaker" survives. The reporter's investigation leads him to the desert. He finds evidence of the astronauts' presence. He comes upon a crop-dusting pilot - a precursor to "Independence Day" LOL - and a search of the desert is undertaken. Brubaker is rescued from those sinister guys in the helicopter. I increasingly got irritated by those faceless, anonymous, automaton-type government people who so relentlessly did devious things. Did Watergate really depress our standards so far, in terms of what we can expect of government behavior?
Our standards in music had been taken over by disco in the year of this movie: 1977.
Speaking of ubiquitous, there was Telly Savalas as the crop-dusting pilot. Those government helicopters chase Savalas' plane but. . .they're blinded by crop spray! Randy Quaid couldn't have done any better.
Triumph at the end: Caulfield and Brubaker arrive at the astronauts' memorial service, a la Tom Sawyer. The conspiracy is revealed! Government fails to pull the blinders over us! But it's depressing to realize the depths to which government people will go, and I'm talking about Watergate.