Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Capricorn One

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, November 23, 2000

See, I told you. Tell me about the lonely plight of a dedicated journalist, I tell you to stuff it. You tell me about a meaningful relationship, I tell you to stuff it. You tell me you’re in trouble, you’re out on bail, you just got fired, I tell you I’ll be right over. You look awful.

Special features

Cast Information4
Production Notes4

A totally strange collection of actors, this 1978 conspiracy film holds up fairly well. It was never great, but it is pretty good. Bonus: O.J. Simpson gets to be the first black astronaut (at least, American astronaut) in space, or would have, if the mission hadn’t been faked. Movies in 1978 were more ahead of the curve racially than real life.

DirectorPeter Hyams
WriterPeter Hyams
Movie Rating5
Transfer Quality6
Overall Rating5
  • Letterbox

When this movie came out, director/writer Peter Hyams was chided for providing fodder for conspiracy theorists, specifically those who claimed that the moon landings were fake (some of whom believed it had to be fake because the earth is flat, others just believe we didn’t have the technology). Even at the time, when I was fourteen, I thought that was the silliest thing I’d ever heard. Who cares what some idiots do with it if it’s a good movie?

And part of my reaction is and was that, as silly as the “it was all a fake” people sound, some of their detractors are just as silly. It was “quite a slanderous movie, pretending that the government had been killing people,” says folklorist Linda Degh. Those who believe the moon landings never happened are harmless, in my opinion. Those who believe government employees never lie are truly dangerous.

Director Peter Hyams agrees: “My parents believed that if it was in The New York Times, it was true. I was part of the generation that grew up believing that if we saw it on television, it was true. And I learned how inaccurate newspapers were, and I realized that TV is just as inaccurate, or it can be. So I said, wouldn't it be interesting if you took a major event where the only source that people have is a television screen, and you showed how easy it would be to manipulate everybody.” Ultimately, I think Hyams failed in what he was trying to do. “Wag the Dog” was a much, much better movie in that respect. In 1978, the best Hyams could do was make a fairly decent thriller with only the “tip of the iceberg”, blatantly unbelievable media manipulations shown on-screen. It sounds, from the included notes, that he would rather have gone more in-depth into how such manipulations happen, much as “Wag the Dog” did twenty years later.

While Hyams did not believe that the moon landings had been faked, he did believe that such a deception was possible. In fact, he believed this as far back as 1972, from his experiences in Vietnam, where the reality in Vietnam was different from the picture presented on television. But in 1972, when he first tried to get this movie made, Hollywood thought the idea of a government conspiracy too “far-fetched”. Later on, after Watergate, the notion was much more believable, and Hyams was able to get the movie made—and with some fairly high-profile actors.

Of the major actors, Elliott Gould is probably the best, as the Kolchak-like reporter who is on the trail of the conspiracy. On the other end of the scale, Telly Savalas probably has the strangest of the characters to play. He plays a crop-duster in the middle of the Texas desert who risks his barnstormer against army helicopters. Savalas does a fine job with it, but the part itself is just plain weird.

Hal Holbrook is sinister enough as the NASA director who stages the hoax. Brenda Vaccaro is innocuous as astronaut James Brolin’s wife.

The astronauts are the center of the action, of course. They’re played by James Brolin as the serious, idealistic one, Sam Waterston as the wise-ass, and O.J. Simpson as the black man with kids who just wants to get home to his wife. There isn’t a whole lot of dialog between these three. When they discover their lives are in danger, they go in different directions. Ostensibly this is to increase the chances that at least one will escape. More likely it is to make it more believable that one or more can be killed off and one might or might not escape. I’m reminded of an old Dungeons & Dragons catch-phrase: “Let’s break up, we can take more damage that way.”

These actors have almost all gone on to worse things. Elliott Gould had already been in M*A*S*H and went on to play alongside the muppets, and, later, “Friends”. James Brolin went to “Amityville Horror” and “Gunsmoke”. Brenda Vaccaro went on to “Supergirl”. Sam Waterston seems to have done much better, in such things as “The Killing Fields” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. And O.J. Simpson went on to be at the center of one of the greatest media events in television’s history.

The DVD is spartan. It has the movie in a non-enhanced widescreen transfer, two trailers, and short notes about the cast, crew, and production. The production notes discuss, briefly, what Hyams wanted out of this movie, and I think he mostly failed. “Capricorn One” is a thriller; it isn’t a movie about media manipulation and government conspiracy; that’s just background for the thriller. But it has a good heart. It shows how politicians will use disasters—even ones of their own making—to make speeches calling for continuing the disaster. It shows how easily the drug war can be used to quell political dissent. There are some gems hidden in Capricorn One.

One of the weirdest things about this package is the opening shot on the menu display. It is a photo of the three astronauts, and it looks as though the photo was taken from the anamorphic film stock and then simply stretched vertically to fit a 4x3 television screen. Everything looks slightly elongated. It might just be the space suits, but it is disconcerting.

There is nothing really special about this movie. It is your basic thriller with what, for the time, was an odd twist on government-media relations. It is worth seeing, and at discounted prices (I’ve seen it as low as $10 and I don’t get around much) it might even be worth buying and passing around to friends.

Recommendation: Rent

DirectorPeter Hyams
WriterPeter Hyams
Spoken languageEnglish
Special FeaturesCast Information, Production Notes, Trailer
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If you enjoyed Capricorn One…

For more about conspiracy, you might also be interested in Men in Black, Wag the Dog, and All the President’s Men.