Countdown (Robert Altman / U.S.,1968):

Super-sized NASA equipment is paraded under the credits, but Robert Altman's cosmic exploration favors people over machines, a tactic Kubrick reversed later that year. The space age culminates with the decline of the studio system, though Altman here is still entrapped by the mainstream format, and the work has been tampered with -- the dissolves straitjacket him, overlapping dialogue survives only in snippets, only his Panavision framing refuses to settle. Blocky men test themselves in perilous missions, but modernist tension cracks the mold of classicism, and James Caan is on board as a Hawksian reminder to be thoroughly revised: Caan is the civilian astronaut who gets to be first man on the moon, Robert Duvall is his military pal, who was originally slated for the journey. Duvall conquers personal envy and guides his friend into space, Duvall's wife Barbara Baxley is upset by somebody singing "the moon is gonna be the death of me" at the pre-liftoff soiree, Caan barks at his wife (Joanna Moore) to smile; the astronaut plays catch with his son in the backyard, Altman tilts toward the sun, then tilts back down to reveal Cape Kennedy, Florida. A slow zoom records the blastoff, the rocket's ascension partly obscured by the palm trees, though not before a bittersweet motel farewell between Caan and Moore, with the high-angled camera locating the couple awake in bed, craning to ground level and panning to a TV set in the dark. ("The, uh, American Dream;" "Oh brother.") Caan brings the Stars 'n' Stripes and Junior's squeaky toy with him, a studio set quaintly recreates the lunar surface, surely a metaphor for the searching artist embarking on the first of many risky projects; 2001 supplies a complementary response, Marooned, The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 are all variations. With Charles Aidman, Michael Murphy, and Ted Knight.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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