By Patrick Crain
“Why not just send the Voice of America up there and do it right? Or send some babe with big beautiful teeth and a stack of pop tunes?”
Robert Altman’s filmography is one that lacks heroes in the conventional sense. What it is in no short supply of are people who stumble upwards into some sense of accomplishment or peace. Sometimes it happens a little too late, but it happens nonetheless. For Altman was less interested in the white-hatted good guys who made up the myths found in the American history books; he wanted the stories of the regular schmoes who sometimes lucked into greatness or, as was also the case, those who stood on the wrong side of greatness and peered longingly at the other side.
So it is that Countdown, Altman’s big budget theatrical debut, would have such a concern at its center. Eleven years before Tom Wolfe blew the lid off the painstaking work that went into the myth-making of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff and a whole year before Apollo 11 made traveling to the moon a reality, Altman got an early crack at both; the bureaucratic handwringing and hustling with elements of the human, home-based drama that got the short shrift in all of those “astronaut wife” profiles Life Magazine churned out around the same time.
Countdown is a film about a fictional race to the moon between the Russians and the United States. Far ahead of the game, the Russians are planning to send an engineer to the moon while the US is still working on its own plans to launch. As the Russians’ plan becomes known, the US throws together a dangerous, breakneck scheme to send a man to beat the Russians to the punch. This causes a rift between Chiz (Robert Duvall) and Lee Stegler (James Caan) as the former is disallowed to go given his military rank and the latter is an untested young hothead. Eventuallly, Chiz becomes Stegler’s backup during his punishing training and preparation while the stress of Stegler’s home life begins to take its toll.
Countdown, at its most basic, is a serious-minded affair that is something between science fantasy and science fiction; I’d be tempted to pitch it as science-fact, but that’s not quite right. For amid the scientific jargon, the gadgets, and the impressive amount of detail, Countdown can’t quite shed its thin, stagey, soap operatic flourishes when it focuses on the domestic world of the Steglers. Chief among the issues is the character of Mick Stegler, Lee’s long-suffering wife. Joanna Moore turns in a fine performance and does what she can with the role but the screenplay gives her no real depth. In a film more daring, Altman would have allowed for Moore to act independently as her emotional void becomes exacerbated by Lee’s work. Mick Stegler is relegated to wear the cloak of the dutiful, robotic wife who more or less has to absorb every decision with a grin. These scenes go through the motions of hitting the right notes where they should in the story (the uncertainty, the fear, the boredom, “what’ll we tell little Stevie?”, etc.) but each domestic situation feels like it was recycled from a benign television drama of the day, exactly the kind of tin-type and shallow patriotism Altman would later skewer with bottomless glee.
But Countdown really shines in those moments where the film focuses on the mission and all of the dressing around it. Altman’s military service gives him a keen understanding of Air Force culture and when the movie settles into the wood-paneled military offices and yawning lecture halls where decisions both good and bad are shouted over each other, the film has a certain immediacy. And, really, to a layman, all of the dialogue and the ephemera sounds pretty buyable, most especially for the time. Hell, “His eyes will have been bathing in oxygen and he’ll have bilateral conjunctivitis” sounds like something I might quote at a party to sound smart if I were in a conversation about astronauts and was three glasses of wine into it.
Under-remarked, too, is just how much pure chemistry is apparent in the debut match of James Caan and Robert Duvall who would find themselves paired in four more films in the following seven years. The naturalism of their rivalry/friendship is a true thing of beauty and it is really on high display here, especially given the nature of the roles and the story.
Countdown is far from a perfect film and it’s very much a product of its time but it’s also not exactly NOT “Altmanesque.” While his particular style of casual observation of the mundane and the messy sound design that’s immediately recognizable as Altman’s would have to wait until his next film, Altman does give it the old college try by having heavy chunks of dialogue to crash and topple on another during a number of the scenes. It’s a technique that would make him famous by 1975 but, in 1968, got him fired from the picture by studio chief Jack Warner and, unfortunately, led to reshoots that jettisoned Altman’s darker, more opaque ending in favor of something with some positive closure.
Due to the studio interference, Countdown is ultimately an impersonal work but Altman’s deconstructive dark streak really finds a way to make its debut here as the film cannily tracks his fascination with the sloppy beauty of America and its ability to achieve great things in spite of itself. How does a man beat the odds, go to the moon, and become the All American Boy? According to Altman, with lot of meetings, nervous political decisions, goofy luck, faulty technology, and a bunch of uncomfortable familial damage.