Capricorn One, the first manned space flight to Mars, lifts off without any problems, but there's something going on behind the scenes that the public don't know about - there are no astronauts aboard the rocket. In fact, as the astronauts soon find out, the whole mission is a hoax designed to increase public morale. The three would-be pioneers - Captain Brubaker (James Brolin), Willis (Sam Waterston) and Walker (O.J. Simpson) are kept behind the scenes in the middle of a desert complex owned by NASA, which houses a studio all the better to recreate the mission for public to watch, never knowing the difference. But as journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) will discover, the plan was not foolproof...
Remember that bit in Diamonds are Forever where James Bond crashes onto a film stage that is shooting fake moon landing footage? Well, director Peter Hyams script built on that then-nascent conspiracy theory, making a large-scale affair out of this simple, but effective, notion. This being made in the post-Watergate seventies, the movie had definite echoes of All the President's Men, even casting the Deep Throat from that film, Hal Holbrook, as the mastermind behind the whole plan, and with a tenacious journalist as the hero standing in for the Woodward and Bernstein personas, though even they were not threatened with death for delving too far into the shady machinations.
Of NASA, no less, not the United States Government, having us believe the apparently benevolent organisation would resort to schemes so insidious and wide-ranging this makes The President's Analyst look positively reasonable. Such was the landscape of the paranoia movie, as Capricorn One still has appeal to all the conspiracy buffs who believe the moon landings really were faked, and even more so when the movie's concealment is gradually revealed as something goes wrong aboard the spacecraft and Caulfield's friend on the inside rumbles what is actually going on, not that he lasts too long after that. Those authorities were not to be trusted, whether it was the Vice President who spends his time at the launch gazing at women through his binoculars as his wife sits beside him, or the secret services eliminating witnesses.
Yes, there are those famed black helicopters (or maybe a dark green, it's difficult to tell) to increase the tension. Cue scenes of Gould finding his car has been tampered with, or having drugs planted on him - everyone is in on it except the innocent public and bizarrely those members of the Government who have no idea what NASA have been up to or indeed are capable of, the anything goes tension quite neatly sustained over the two hour running time as we drop in on the families (Brenda Vaccaro has a fine scene where she tries to read a Dr. Seuss story at bedtime to her oblivious children) and Caulfield as his life spirals out of control the closer he gets to the truth we are all too aware of. Time and again the film emphasises the heroism of the innocent in the now-pessimistic modern world.
Hyams obviously likes to hear his actors talk, because there are great stretches of dialogue, sometimes at the expense of the brisk pacing needed to sustain the excitement of the astronauts' escape attempt (and sending Gould out to a Western theme park just looks like unnecessary padding). The story celebrates the ordinary people, who manage to get one over on the authorities who cynically attempt to manipulate them - see the final chase sequence with Telly Savalas as an irascible pilot which features great flying photography and stunts that would be replaced with CGI if the sequence were made today. When the astronauts realise they are now a liability, it's a great scene of anxiety, though there is humour of a dark variety to be gleaned, most famously in Waterston's exhausted joke telling. But the ending, which makes twinkly American heroes out of the people who have uncovered the plot, seems out of place after all that cynicism; that's the very end, however, as the rest of it was accomplished in a genre that came of age in its decade. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.