Based on the 1964 novel The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls, Countdown was the last film about the space program to be released in the United States before Americans landed on the moon. For that reason, it’s a fascinating historical document, almost playing like an alternative history, in which screenwriter Loring Mandel and director Robert Altman try to predict how the first American steps on the moon would look and feel. In their version, the story is driven by Lee, a scientist and astronaut played by James Caan, and Chiz, a scientist and colonel played by Robert Duvall. Both of them work for NASA, who reveal, early in the film, that the Russians are on the verge of making a moon landing, meaning that America has to try and get there first. While Chiz is the most experienced astronaut, their bosses decide to send Lee instead, since “our space program is non-military, we must demonstrate that.” Most of the film takes place at Cape Kennedy, where Chiz grudgingly prepares Lee for the task, while their wives Mickey, played by Joanna Moore, and Jean, played by Barbara Baxley, come to terms with the challenges facing them as they prepare for the final launch.
Much of the film is driven by the diplomatic importance of sending a civilian into outer space, and the question of what it means to send a civilian into outer space, meaning that Countdown is peculiarly alive to the relation between science fiction and suburban melodrama, and between domestic and cosmic experience, that structures so much American cinema from the 1950s onwards. In particular, outer space, and the prospect of a moon landing, was an ideal canvas to contemplate American gender relations at this time. On the one hand, it was where those gender relations were most pronounced, often evoking futuristic vision of the world in which women were homekeepers and men were astronauts. On the other hand, it was where those gender relations were the most precarious, suggesting that men and women, as they were currently conceived, were ultimately destined to inhabit totally different planes of the universe. Similarly, while astronauts were figures of – literal – masculine aspiration, they were also figures of potential emasculation, as Countdown makes peculiarly apparent in its opening few scenes.
These scenes tend to be driven by the gravitas and hubris between Lee and Chiz. While Lee is hesitant about his ability to survive in outer space, his pride also dictates that he accept the challenge, and that he resent Chiz for trying to hold him back. Conversely, while Chiz knows that Lee can probably make the moon landing, he resents him for taking the spotlight away from him, and doubly resents having to be the man to train him for the task. As might be expected, that produces an intensely myopic relation between the two men, one that initially affirms both of their masculine self-images, but which gradually deteriorates their shared gravitas and hubris, eventually collapsing them into a co-dependent dyad in which women almost seem to be an afterthought. For all their heroic swaggering, preparing for the moon landing forces them both into a series of increasingly contorted postures, just as even their most charismatic banter tends to be subsumed into the broader technological and procedural landscape of Cape Kennedy, and then the Houston Space Center. Time and again, you sense that technology is inherently effeminizing to their mindset, continually signalling that part of their mission they can’t fully control, and can’t grasp in its full totality.
In other words, the heroic agon between Lee and Chiz is continually undercut by the sheer ensemble of knowledge that is required to make their agon ramify in the first place. In a more conventional film about the space program, this ensemble knowledge would be discretely and tactfully swept aside – as occurs in Damien Chazelle’s First Man – but Altman goes in the opposite direction here, as if using the intensely myopic focus of the screenplay as a way of exploring its opposite, the ensemble sensibility that would become one of his signatures throughout the 1970s. In part, this involves disrupting the figurative role that marriage plays in the film, whether through Lee and Chiz’s tendency to compare the spacecraft to a spouse, and space flight to marriage, or in their own marital moment just before takeoff, when Lee grips Chiz’s hands in his own, and refuses to let go. Even when he is in the air, it is Chiz’s voice that Lee needs more than any other – he doesn’t even ask to speak to his wife – while the film’s greatest crisis comes as Chiz goes off air for a few hours.
At a more immediate level, however, Altman’s camera often seems to get restless when the screenplay requires it to stay fixated on these two men for very long. One of the first indications of this occurs in an early scene where Chiz is arguing with his boss, and saying all the things to him that he really wants to say to Lee. Another director might be fascinated with this transference, but instead Altman allows the body of a secretary to take up the front of the frame, relegating this moment of masculine pathos to the background. More pervasively, as the film proceeds, the sublime verticality of space exploration is offset by what might be described as horizontal, or contiguous, or even metonymic spaces – spaces in which diverse groups of people mingle in messy and inchoate ways, often across several competing planes of space and sound, and often at the explicit expense of the space program. One of these occurs shortly after the previous scene, taking us to a party where a collection of people are gathered around a pool, wandering in and out of an open-plan house as they listen to a samba guitarist improvising a series of parodic refrains on the upcoming moon landing and its hubris, reminding us that “The Man in the Moon is a Girl.”
This washed-out ambience not only intensifies as the launch approaches, but actually displaces the launch, dispersing it across a porous Florida landscape that is diametrically opposed to the solitary confinement and sharp thresholds that mark Lee’s last few days of preparation. In the process, the relation between the men and their wives grows more elastic and untethered, as Altman gradually dissolves their marriages into the burgeoning ensemble that gathers around Cape Kennedy as the final date draws near. When the launch actually does occur, it is almost entirely subsumed into all the people, locations and recording devices that are watching it on the ground, as if the departure to outer space, and the departure of this heroic masculine mode of characterisation, actually left a new cinematic possibility on earth in its wake. In many of Altman’s films, you sense the exhaustion of mid-century social roles, and that process starts here, as the pinnacle of mid-century masculinity ramifies as a relief, a loosening and slackening of cinematic convention.
Of course, Altman still has to devote the third act of the film to the moon landing. But this takes a very unusual form, entirely skipping over Chiz’s transition from the earth’s surface to the atmosphere of the moon. Instead of following this journey from Chiz’s perspective, Altman instead immerses us in the events on the ground, offering us something like a workplace film about the Houston Space Center, rather than a tale of heroic space exploration per se. Throughout his subsequent filmography, Altman would often build his distinctive ambience, and his ensemble sensibility, by loosening and elasticizing the space between sound and image, as well as reversing the primacy of sound over image, to create tableaux where sound and image overlapped in unruly and exhilarating ways. While that signature is still inchoate here, it does inform the ambience of the Houston Space Center – a quotidian hum, or low murmur, that reminded me of the move towards workplace documentary in his later films, such as Pret-a-Porter, The Company and A Prairie Home Companion. Here, as in those films, the events are displaced into a vast array of interested parties, including technical staff, medical staff, and media spokespeople relaying the launch.
This low-level ambience also works to displace Lee from the sense of heroic singularity that drove him into space in the first place. While the spacecraft is hundreds of miles from earth, it partakes of the same quietness as the Houston Space Center, undercutting the heroism and prowess that is often attached to astronauts in films of this kind. More notably, perhaps, Lee has a moment of crisis when an electrical shortage forces him to cut communication with the Space Center for a few hours, robbing him of its comforting ambience, and revealing that his heroic individuality always subsisted on this collective effort. Finally, when Lee does arrive on the moon, and prepares to find a space commensurate to his masculine singularity, he discovers that the Russians have already made contact, but that they have crashed, resulting in an eerie and sombre tableau in which he stumbles upon a wrecked vessel, and three dead Russian astronauts scattered beside it.
In another kind of film, the director would have to work hard to resurrect a feel-good ending after this unsettling display. Yet this feel-good ending never really comes in Countdown. Instead, Lee picks up the Russian flag, still unfurled, and hangs it beneath the American flag, as a sign of respect, before making his way to the American safety pod. The last fifteen minutes of the follow Lee, and the crew back on earth, as they wait to see if he has enough oxygen to reach the pod, since he can’t make contact until he does. While he does finally arrive at the pod, the film ends before he resumes contact with earth – with Chiz, with Mickey, with his friends and family – displacing any sense of heroic individual resolution to instead suspend us in the ensemble anticipation, and the ensemble ambience, that Altman would make his own. For Altman, this anticipation, and ambience, would be critical to his liberal and socialist sensibility, and we get some of the very earliest glimpses of that here, in one of the most slyly subversive films about the space race made during this period – an eerily prescient and pregnant vision on the very cusp of the first moon landing.