“If you believed they put a man on the moon,” sang Michael Stipe, evincing uncertainty in honor of Andy Kaufman, a peerless put-on artist whose love of masquerade—everything from off-the-clock alter egos to pro wrestling villainy—made him a true icon of untrustworthiness. (For Kaufman, comedy was easy. Staying dead has been hard.)
Kaufman is the soul of “Man on the Moon,” but Stipe’s lyrics also refer to a larger bit of American counter-mythology—namely, the culturally embedded suspicion that the 1969 Apollo 11 mission (and the triumphal media narrative that ended with Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind”) was nothing more than fake news.
Ever since the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, the relationship between official accounts of outer space and hysterical, earthbound conspiracy theories has been inextricable. In 1938, Orson Welles inverted the Great Moon Hoax by staging The War of the Worlds as a live radio news broadcast, cheerfully illustrating the principle that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. A decade later, rumors of a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, circulated in off-the-grid publications and infected the next 60 years of science fiction from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The X-Files.
By the time Stanley Kubrick made 2001 in 1968, special effects had gotten so advanced that the images of futuristic interstellar travel were as convincing as anything on the evening news—to the point that within a few years, the director would be accused of partnering with NASA to fake the moon landing on an Alabama soundstage.
Rodney Ascher’s terrific essay film Room 237 references these accusations as part of a larger consideration of obsessive Kubrick fandom, while the clever Canadian writer-director Matt Johnson satirized the same bit of crypto-film-historical lore in 2016’s very funny Operation Avalanche, in which the filmmaker cast himself as the actual auteur behind the hoax, with Kubrick reduced to a CGI cameo. (A shot where his character shakes hands with the great director radiates with more hubris than humility, but that’s Johnson’s brand.)
Contrasted with the sober, bristling authenticity of Damien Chazelle’s First Man—which has had a bit of a rough takeoff into the fall’s Oscar race, with mixed reviews and middling box office returns—Operation Avalanche reps the same skepticism as “Man on the Moon,” with its implied suggestion that the space race was just so much sleight of hand—that “if you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve,” well, shame on you. But while Johnson was working with the benefit of 40 years of wild-eyed hindsight—and drawing on the anxious style of vintage ’70s movies to do so—the original cover-up classic is Peter Hyams’s 1978 thriller Capricorn One, a striking hybrid of The Manchurian Candidate, All the President’s Men, and Planet of the Apes (with a bit of North by Northwest thrown in), that doubles subtextually as one of the era’s most damning Vietnam parables and makes First Man’s dead-eyed credulousness look even less interesting by comparison.
A former war correspondent who also worked as an anchorman for a local Boston television station (where, shades of Ron Burgundy, he was considered a “glamour type”), Hyams was around when televised coverage of the Apollo missions was a monocultural event, drawing huge ratings—a phenomenon that he viewed with a mix of cynicism of frustration. “I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true,” he told Empire. “That turned out to be bullshit. My generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullshit too.” His amazement at the footage of the moon landing stemmed from the fact the “only verification we have that anyone reached the surface of the moon came from one camera.” This in turn led him to imagine a scenario where such a broadcast was stage-managed by sinister forces, either to hide the fact of real-life failure or to capitalize on the unifying patriotism of the space race in a moment when American life was more fractured and factionalized than ever before.
Hyams may not have invented the idea that the moon landing was a fake, but he was smart enough to translate it into a feature-film script in the late 1970s, at which point the ordeal of Watergate had made such machinations seem entirely plausible. As if to cinch the connection between presidential dishonesty and his own sci-fi premise—which raised the stakes from a moon mission to a Mars landing—Hyams reached back to the cast of All the President’s Men for his villain. When Dr. James Kelloway, architect of the expedition, explains to the three astronauts hand-picked for the mission why they’ve been plucked out of the rocket just before blastoff—unbeknownst to a national television audience that believes they’re still onboard, getting their asses to Mars—his monologue about the importance of covering up the facts is all the more compelling because he’s played by Deep Throat himself, the great character actor Hal Holbrook. Basically, if your movie had a conspiracy in it, chances are Hal was on hand.
“How much does it cost? How much does any dream cost?” groans Kelloway, who fears any public failure on NASA’s part will lead to defunding. While Hyams didn’t base the character on any specific figure, his script drew on a new reality. By the late 1970s, the good vibes of the Apollo 11 mission had dried up and the TV audiences for subsequent launches had dwindled (to quote Krusty the Clown: “1969: Man walks on the moon. ... 1971: Man walks on the moon … again”). Kelloway’s plan is to tell a big lie in order to preserve his dream: The Capricorn One astronauts will be sequestered in the desert for several months and perform in a staged version of the Mars landing before returning home in their reentry capsule, with nobody—including mission control, which is still monitoring the ship’s actual movement through space—being any the wiser. And, if they don’t go along, he’ll have their families killed. What was he saying again about cost?
If there’s a flaw in Capricorn One’s setup, it’s that Holbrook makes Kelloway far too seductive and relatable in his villainy, especially since the film’s hero is so bland. As Colonel Charles Brubaker, James Brolin is stoic and All-American to a fault. The other members of the crew are a little livelier: Sam Waterston as the wisecracking Lieutenant Colonel Peter Willis, and (yep, it’s weird) O.J. Simpson as Commander John Walker, both of whom go along with the charade largely because of their loyalty to Brubaker, yet seem bitterly disappointed both in the mission’s failure and their own lack of principles.
At first, Kelloway’s plan succeeds brilliantly, including the filming of the landing itself, which Hyams shoots as a wicked parody of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon walk. Less than a decade after the fact, Capricorn One’s counterfeit mission felt sacreligious, if not outright seditious, even as it concretely visualized the fantasies of so many passionate skeptics. It’s arguable that the film peaks with the fake landing, although its more suggestive subtext comes later, when an accident with the actual spacecraft—which really has been to Mars and back—requires that the astronauts disappear for good, lest their reemergence scuttle the entire fiction. They have to die heroes, rather than live long enough to let Kelloway be the villain.
The back end of Capricorn One is split in half, between scenes of Brubaker and his crew evading government assassins out in the badlands and the parallel narrative of a crusading investigative journalist, Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who is uncovering the deception in real time. Caulfield’s surname is a reference to The Catcher in the Rye, whose teenaged hero Holden was averse to “phoniness.” Gould shrewdly plays the part as the same sort of rumpled truth-teller as his Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, with a bit of self-reflexive humor thrown in as well. “When a reporter tells his assignment editor that he thinks he may be onto something that could be really big, the assignment editor is supposed to say ‘You’ve got 48 hours, kid, and you better come up with something good or it’s your neck,’” he tells his boss before adding drolly: “That’s what he’s supposed to say, I saw it in a movie.”
With this in mind, Hyams’s vision of journalism as a wryly self-deprecating force for good mirrors All the President’s Men, with Caulfield as a wisecracking Bernstein type who methodically unravels the web of lies around him.
Gould’s stuff is funny and engaging but it’s not the driving force of the movie. What makes the desert scenes so memorable—beyond Hyams’s crisp action direction, with terrific cinematography by Jaws DP Bill Butler—is the idea of American heroes under fire from their own ranks. The specter of Watergate may hover over Kelloway’s for-your-own-good rhetoric, but, stranded in the desert behind a version of enemy lines, Brubaker and his crew are basically soldiers trying to stay alive. In the same year that The Deer Hunter and Coming Home brought attention to the plight of returning veterans, Capricorn One’s allegory of enlisted men considered expendable resonated from a different, more plangent angle. The way that Hyams turns America itself into a kind of lunar surface recalls the visual style of Planet of the Apes (another film about astronauts who end up back on Earth) but the pacing and pathos are like something out of a war movie—a pop version of Paths of Glory.
In contrast to the doomy worldview of the majority of ’70s conspiracy thrillers from Chinatown to The Parallax View to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hyams’s script permits the possibility of a happy ending, of villainy exposed and punished in the public eye. In order to get there, of course, there are sacrifices: Waterson’s final scene is a marvel of bleak, black comedy, tracking Willis as he exhaustedly crawls up a sheer cliff face, buoying his own spirits with an extended joke, before the camera delivers a grim visual punch line. The survivalist heroics on display are alpha-male stuff (at one point, Brolin kills and eats a snake) and yet the plotting is also playfully postmodern. Hyams has great fun paying superfluous but exciting homage to the crop duster chase scene in North by Northwest, enlisting Telly Savalas to play an eccentric pilot enlisted by Caulfield to aid in Brubaker’s rescue, at which point Capricorn One mutates from a critique of pandering spectacle to an example of it. The final scene is great from the perspective of meaningless trivia: what is the only movie in history to feature both of Barbra Streisand’s husbands running side by side in slow motion?
In a neat twist, Hyams would go on to make the sequel to 2001, a film that, while fine on its own terms, has never been accused of providing cover for a massive government cover-up. Capricorn One doesn’t have the reputation of 2001 either—or even of Planet of the Apes—but it stands as one of the last examples of truly jaundiced genre filmmaking before the special-effects onslaught of the ’80s, which sought to make outer space great again onscreen (and off, with Reagan organizing the defense budget around a real-life version of “Star Wars”). About 10 years ago, word got around that a remake of Capricorn One was in the works … though it has failed to materialize. It’s just as well, since whatever point Hyams had to make about the danger and allure of national fantasies—and the cost of maintaining them—came through just fine the first time around, and is right there to revisit if need be.
An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to the late Hal Holbrook; Holbrook is alive.