James Caan and Robert Duvall starred in quite a few films together in their early careers. In 1969 Francis Ford Coppola would cast them both in The Rain People, and the director would go on to give them each one of their finest roles as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The pair would reunite in 1975 for Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, and the fact of that film failing shouldn’t be faulted to either actor. But their first collaboration was on one of the earliest feature films of the great Robert Altman: the man-on-the-moon drama Countdown.
Altman had years of television and film experience prior to Countdown. His first feature The Delinquents appeared in 1957, around the same time as his James Dean documentary The James Dean Story, both of which led to television gigs on the likes of Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was Countdown, though, that seemed to herald Altman’s career as a film director – he would basically direct a film every single year for the next two decades, which is pretty unheard of in this day and age.
Caan plays Lee Stegler, a young astronaut training with Duvall’s more military-minded Chiz to be a part of the Apollo space program. Their plans are cut short when a new program takes precedence over the Apollo missions: the Pilgrim Project, a crash program designed to get the Americans to the moon before the Russians. Chiz seems to be first in line for the seat on the one-man mission until the powers that be (essentially NASA’s P.R. guys) decide that an American civilian on the moon would play better on the global stage than an army man on the moon. Lee and Chiz vie for the spot and ultimately Lee is chosen to be the first man on the moon.
As is often the case with the early careers of directors like Altman, very little of his signature style is immediately apparent in Countdown. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with the film, as the plot and the actors and sets and pacing is all there and all enjoyable. But there’s little suspense, somehow, even though the fight to get to the moon first is very much a last-minute, high-risk endeavor. Countdown kind of limps into the final act, which seems rushed after so much buildup. 90% of the film is not, in fact, set in space, rather locked down in bureaucratic scenes in offices and on training grounds. When Lee finally gets to the moon his two-hour oxygen limit spans a mere four minutes, which hardly seems enough time for us to really feel fear for him.
That said, Countdown is still enjoyable. Certain flourishes are clear forerunners to Altman’s sharp wit, especially those cuts that come immediately after the punchline of a given scene and leave the audience grinning as the next scene sets up. The characters, subplots and sets are none to deep or detailed, but they’re a solid basis on which Altman would build the rest of his career.