*. The end of a long and impressive run for the cinema of paranoia in the 1970s.
*. How do you know it’s the end? Well, for starters the conspiracy is about as far out there as you can get. As if the faking of the moon landing wasn’t bad enough, here we have a faked expedition to Mars.
*. Who could be behind such a hare-brained scheme? Hal Holbrook makes a vague rhetorical gesture toward “people out there, forces out there” that are “grown-ups.” As opposed to? How many people at NASA are in the know? How many people in the FBI? Who in the government is involved? That shady Congressman Parker certainly seems part of the plot, but is he? I don’t see where his connection is ever made explicit. And large corporations, of course (Con Amalgamate, who would be recycled as the villainous corporation in Outland).
*. We also know we’ve come to the end of the line when we get to the horrendous happy ending. How painfully contrived and unbelievable. Hollywood wins again. Hyams wanted audiences to cheer at the end (Rocky was his inspiration): “I just think it was a time in America when we were so fed up with bad guys winning.” And cheer they did. Vietnam and Watergate were now fading memories. Just a few months later the government would be covering up the arrival of aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it turned out they were nothing to be frightened of. Morning in America was on its way.
*. Finally, you know a genre is spent when it begins to show signs of self-satire. Writer/director Hyams makes his case against the power of the media, but he doesn’t believe in any of the rest of it. I think this weakens the film. Say what you will about Oliver Stone’s sense of history, JFK is all the more powerful a film because he sincerely believes the truth is out there.
*. As with any conspiracy involving so many moving parts, you can’t imagine it staying together. Take the disappearance of the NASA technician Elliot Whittier. This makes no sense at all. If the conspiracy had wanted to get rid of him they could have easily killed him or removed him in some mysterious but quiet way. Instead they set up a ridiculous alternate reality where he never existed? How long could such a cover story last? Didn’t Elliot have any friends (aside from Caulfield)? Or family? And if they really wanted to kill Gould’s character would they have done something as silly as cutting his brake lines? Or taking a couple of wild shots at him in a deserted location and then running away?
*. Hal Holbrook. The face of compromised power. The burned-out conspirator. Hyams on his commentary notes his facility at delivering set-piece speeches, and that’s part of it. You can never quite trust him, even when he’s playing one of the good guys.
*. I was just dying to see James Brolin get his perfect mane of hair mussed. That’s a genuine Hollywood-hero coiffure. But then in the desert he gets to wear a cool bandana. No fair!
*. The scene where the astronauts talk to their wives has no time delay in their messages? That doesn’t seem realistic.
*. It’s a clunky script. The pace flags at several points, many scenes either go on too long or are irrelevant, and the structure is misshapen. The chase following the astronauts’ escape takes up too much time, basically splitting the movie in two. And while we can all think of one or two prominent exceptions, I think there are few things as tedious to watch as people crawling through the desert.
*. Hyams on the matter of pacing, then and now: “You know to do a mystery, even in a film that’s filled with some very big action scenes, I’m not sure you could take the same pace now. I think audiences are a bit more impatient, I think you’d have to speed some things up some more because they won’t sit still. Certainly young audiences . . . I think you’d have to do it a little quicker. I don’t think that’s necessarily good, I think it’s just what is.” Fair enough.
*. How did they get NASA to cooperate with the making of this movie? Perhaps they thought there was no such thing as bad publicity.
*. All through Sam Waterson’s painful cliff-climbing episode I was thinking that there must have been an easier way up. Then, in the shot where the camera pulls away to show the two helicopters waiting for him at the top, you can clearly see that he could have just gone around. There’s even what seems to be a trail running up one side of the cliff, to the right.
*. Yes, the helicopter chase scene is an amazing stunt. It’s some of the most impressive aerial work I’ve ever seen. And it doesn’t work at all. What I mean is that it doesn’t go with the rest of the film’s sense of claustrophobic dread and paranoia. It belongs in another movie.
*. Hyams mentions on the DVD commentary that O. J. Simpson’s head was so big they had to get a special space helmet made for him. I hadn’t noticed before, but Hyams is right. It’s huge!
*. Gould has to open his medicine cabinet to show you that there’s nothing in it, so you’ll know that the drugs the FBI find there later have been planted. And so Hyams shows him rinsing his mouth with Scope. After which he immediately heads to the kitchen and pours himself a cup of coffee. Who keeps their private stash of cocaine in their medicine cabinet? Who drinks coffee right after rinsing their mouth out with mouthwash? Come on. Think, people. Think!
*. Hyams wanted the helicopters to be characters, and I think he achieved this effect. But of course it’s silly that they have to keep stopping in mid-air to look at each other, and it’s not clear to me why they’d always be together anyway if their goal was to cover as much ground as possible in their search for the astronauts. Shouldn’t they have split up?
*. I wish Brenda Vaccaro had been given more to do. She’s really a solid actress and I think she was perfect in the part. She has a reputation for playing tough characters, probably because of that throaty voice, but it’s her intelligence that impresses me. Despite having an almost entirely passive role here, she seems smarter than all of the men around her.
*. Hyams had no idea what one critic meant by his “Kubrick homage” at the end of the film. I don’t think it’s an homage, but I picked up the connection to Dr. Strangelove and the coke machine right away. But apparently he was totally unconscious of the connection.
*. Do Walker and Willis die? I felt it was left open-ended, but on the commentary track Hyams makes it clear that he thought they were executed, and talks of their two “death” scenes. I guess that’s not a definitive statement, but you can take it for what it’s worth.
*. Hyams concludes his commentary by wondering a bit wistfully about how well this movie has stood the test of time. Reasonably well, I would say. It’s not in the front rank of conspiracy thrillers from the period, but people still watch it and the airplane chase scene is still impressive (and I think always will be).
*. Aside from that, it also remains interesting for its self-reflexive quality. It’s a movie about mediated reality and how the image can be a manufactured lie. I hate the ending, but there’s an important point in it where the television cameras all turn from the funeral service toward Brubaker; that is, away from the official, political lie and toward the truth. There’s a darker, matching moment when the astronauts are making their escape in the jet and Brubaker wonders if their families will be happy to see them come home. It’s a profoundly troubling thought. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if the astronauts were to remain dead heroes? Wouldn’t a lie be better than the truth?