Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I Can't Tell You That, Bru

Today I watched Peter Hyams's Capricorn One for the first time, and I was struck by a couple of things. One of those things was not exactly a revelation, but is worth noting anyway (and which will, in any case, lead me to the second thing) and it is that Hal Holbrook is a brilliant actor. He has at least three big scenes in Hyams's paranoid thriller about a faked NASA Mars-landing. In the first one, Holbrook, as NASA bigwig Dr. Kelloway, is laying out the truth behind the Capricorn One mission to the three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and -- ah well -- O. J. Simpson) who, just moments ago, believed that a bomb was going to go off under their asses and blow them clean to Mars, for real. Skipping ahead to the second scene, Kelloway is conducting a press conference in which he announces that the three astronauts were killed on re-entry (they weren't, because they never went to Mars, but Kelloway is working behind the scenes to make them actually dead). Finally, in the third scene, Kelloway is visiting the sort-of widow (Brenda Vaccaro, also superb) of one of the astronauts, hoping to talk her into attending a memorial service for her husband and the other two astronauts.
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In each scene, Kelloway is working towards his only goal throughout the film, one set up in that first scene with the three astronauts: he wants to save NASA. Dr. Kelloway has dreamed of building from the Mercury and Apollo programs for decades, but a series of setbacks have put the space program in jeopardy. In his speech to the astronauts, laying out the conspiracy, Holbrook plays Kelloway's desperation, passion, uncertainty and guilt so beautifully, with such precision, that it's nearly impossible for me to describe what he does, or how he does it. He lives that scene, as he lives the press conference, when Kelloway is hoping his speech, and the press, can somehow save his dreams, which by this point in the film he can sense are collapsing. Later, when he meets with Vaccaro, Holbrook plays this man, who we now know is willing to kill for what he wants, as a genuine old friend to this grieving woman.
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His scene with Vacarro is, in particular, a great one, top to bottom. Though Holbrook commands the other two scenes I've mentioned, he has less to do at the press conference (though check out his look of hopeful, but defeated, weariness as he delivers the "you tell me" section of his dialogue), and is playing off three stiffs in the early speech to the astronauts. The less said about Simpson the better, and, frankly, the same goes for Brolin (though for somewhat different reasons), but Waterston, a fine actor, seems bored. But not Holbrook, and later, not Vaccaro, either. Both of them are playing their roles in full, not caring, or not appearing to care, that they are nailing each moment, and each word, with everything they have, to the benefit of a high-end B movie.
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Which is as it should always be, of course, and that brings me to my second observation: Capricorn One is a movie seriously divided. Holbrook doesn't have a whole lot of scenes, but in the ones he has, he's given a lot of dialogue, and it's generally very well-written. The screenplay is by Hyams, a hugely frowned-upon filmmaker these days, but there are moments in Capricorn One when you sense a true writer, writing. And then you get goofball shit with Telly Savalas towards the end, you get a plot that collapses pretty badly, you get laugh-inducing slow-motion in the last seconds, and you get Elliot Gould, who probably felt as divided filming his scenes as I felt watching it.
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My hopes were not, I must admit, especially high for Capricorn One going into it, despite being praised by my pal Greg Ferrara. I figured it would be a fun, trashy 70s thriller -- effective, but silly. And it was. What I was wholly unprepared for was the untapped potential that's trying to bust out about every ten, fifteen minutes, whenever Holbrook appears as a good man who does evil things, or any time Gould gets a good scene (he also has a couple of real winners with Vaccaro). This should have been frustrating, I suppose, but I was not expecting performance, or dialogue, at this occasionally very high level, and so, finally, I was more delighted than anything else. Except now that I think back on it, yeah, it's sort of frustrating.
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The film Capricorn One most reminded me of -- and, coincidentally, today's Collection Project Film of the Day -- is Three Days of the Condor (d. Sydney Pollack). That's a film that has an absolutely stunning opening chunk, maybe the first ten or fifteen minutes. In that part of the film, Robert Redford, as a bookish, desk-bound CIA operative, leaves his similarly bookish and desk-bound colleagues to pick up lunch. While he's gone, a group of men break into the office and, coldly, efficiently, and wordlessly, gun everybody down. These characters, Redford's co-workers, have been set up just enough for us to buy into the sedentary nature of their positions within the CIA, and to be curious enough about them to wonder how they'll figure into the larger story. And then they're all dead, in a snap. In my view, this opening is so good, so chilling, that Three Days of the Condor never recovers. From that point on, the film becomes rote, and (worse) preachy, and even the appearance of Max von Sydow can't drag it by its collar back into the world of the movie it might have been. It's true that I am perhaps philosophically disinclined to fully embrace this sort of paranoid thriller, but I still think that Pollack and his collaborators front-loaded their film with all their best ideas (which, really, was an idea, singular), and could never match it.
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I wonder if something similar happened with Capricorn One. It's tempting to say that Hyams wasn't taking himself, or his film, as seriously as Pollack, Redford, et al, clearly did with Three Days of the Condor, but I think the film's best scenes indicate that yeah, he did take it seriously, and good for him. It's just that, ultimately, Kelloway was the one guy Hyams, as a writer, really invested in. Then he went one better and, in a masterstroke, cast Hal Holbrook. The result being that I want to see the film again, but this time put Holbrook as Kelloway front and center.

12 comments:

Greg said...

Bill, thanks for making it seem like I lauded Capricorn One as a great movie. How can I ever repay you?

Anyway, I didn't see this until after I commented on your FB update so here is what I said:

"Bill, it's an uneven film, sometimes going for conspiracy, sometimes going for comedy, sometimes going for action, sometimes going for thriller, etc. But in the end, I think it's a pretty good entertainment.

And here's what I've always thought about that opening speech scene, my favorite in the movie (which means it's all downhill after that I ... See Moresuppose). I think it is very well written as you say, but moreso, perfectly timed! I've always been kind of amazed that at the point you are thinking, "Okay, this speech is getting a little preachy," - at exactly that moment(!), Holbrook's character says, "Okay, enough of the speech..." And Holbrook brings you right up to that point with such strength that I'm not sure (and follow me here) if, in fact, the speech is written with perfect timing, or I'm just thinking it is because Holbrook announcing that it's "enough of the speech" so convinces me that I then have a false memory of thinking the speech was starting to get preachy, because, essentially, that's what Holbrook just told me to think."

bill r. said...

I said you praised it! And you have! What's the big deal??

So anyway. Yes, the speech cuts off at just the right time. I think it's written that way, but Holbrook still has to play it right, and he does. He plays it as though Kelloway realizes "I'm losing focus, I need to bring this back around, I'm getting caught up in my own shit here...". He makes Kelloway a genuinely fascinating character. The movie's a fun thriller, but Holbrook plays his part like the role of a lifetime. I don't think I'm exaggerating, either, because he always does that.

Greg said...

He does play it that way and was such an underused actor in roles like this and Deep Throat, another role where he plays conflicted throughout. I had the great pleasure and honor of seeing him in Mark Twain Tonight back in 85 and he was magnificent. He's one of those actors that you feel somewhere along the line he should have gotten an Oscar, for anything.

The one part of the movie I've always disliked, well, maybe hated, is the final act. As you noted, it pretty much collapses under its own weight and the scenes with Telly Savalas almost make me angry they're so bad. Given the greatness of Holbrook's character, I'd say it would have been a better choice for Hyams to go the Parallax View downer ending route. In other words, no big chase, no biplane antics, no Lear Jet escape to the desert. Have Gould and the three astronauts killed and finish the movie with the most incredible, heartfelt eulogy ever written. Holbrook delivers it filled to the gills with emotion. The funeral attendees and everyone watching sees a man filled with grief but the movie audience knows what it really is. He saved NASA, but at what price? Fade to black. Credits.

That's that third act I'd like to see.

bill r. said...

In the early going, I genuinely thought we might be heading in that direction, but after a while it was pretty clear that wasn't going to happen. So many paranoid thrillers from the 70s have bleak endings, why didn't Hyams see the potential?

And when he asked you "Hey Greg, can you write the ending of CAPRICORN ONE for me?" why didn't you say yes!?

Greg said...

I would've, but I was, like, ten or eleven. I saw it in the theater, by the way, with my Dad so it has a huge nostaligic pull for me as well. Just an FYI.

Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flickhead said...

My memory's not what it once was, but... wasn't Holbrook's long scene where he talks with the astronauts done in one long, single take? I may be mistaken, but I recall marvelling at how much dialog he was nailing down.

The Telly Savalas scenes are embarrassing.

I believe Peter N. pointed out that Capricorn One stars two of Barbra Streisand's exes!

I haven't seen it since it first aired, but there was a TV movie in the 70s called A Clear and Present Danger with Holbrook that may be worth revisiting.

bill r. said...

No, it wasn't one long take -- it's basically a few longish takes. Hyams cuts to the astronauts every so often. Holbrook still nails big hunks of dialogue at a time, though.

I haven't seen it since it first aired, but there was a TV movie in the 70s called A Clear and Present Danger with Holbrook that may be worth revisiting.

If Holbrook's in it, then it's worth seeing. I'll look into that one.

Don Mancini said...

Great review of an underrated B-movie gem. I agree that Hal Holbrook is terrific. To me, that early speech is kind of over-written and on-the-nose, but Holbrook puts it over, big-time. And even though, as you and Greg point out, the third act is silly, it's partly saved by Hyams's first-rate direction of the action, Bill Butler's stunning scope photography, and Jerry Goldsmith's thrilling score. I love how the two insect-like helicopters almost become characters as they scour the desert for the astronauts. And Telly Savalas aside, the final chase with the choppers and the bi-plane is thrilling stuff, all the more so because it's so obviously REAL.

bill r. said...

Thanks for checking in, Don. You may be right about the speech -- maybe it is on-the-nose and over-written. I'd have to watch it again and see. But I can tell you that as delivered by Holbrook, it never felt like it. On the page, maybe the stuff would make me roll my eyes, but on screen, no -- Holbrook meant every word, and so I bought it all.

It's funny, this post was originally supposed to primarily be me singing the praises of Holbrook, full stop, but it sort of snowballed.

Anyhow:

the final chase with the choppers and the bi-plane is thrilling stuff, all the more so because it's so obviously REAL.

Well directed, sure, but didn't you think it just went on and on? The problem with really doing something like that, is that you can only do so much, and so maybe shouldn't draw it out too much. I just got bored with it. Even so, I was impressed that it looked as though they just threw two helicopters against the side of a mountain.

Don Mancini said...

It does seem to go on a bit, but in 1978, on the big screen, it played like gangbusters to my audience. (If memory serves.)

I haven't watched the film in a couple of years, so my memory of Holbrook's speech isn't as fresh as yours. It may be that I am simply parroting current Hollywood thinking about that kind of exposition: It tends to be frowned upon -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that the speech itself is at fault. Maybe I should be mourning the passing of an era which valued that kind of speech. I love good talky movies, like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, of course, but that film is a total anomaly in today's mainstream cinema. In CAPRICORN, I do remember Holbrook's saying "Okay, enough of the speech," which always struck me as the writer's conscious apology for the preceding exposition. Anyway, you've made me want to watch it again.

Anonymous said...

the final chase with the choppers and the bi-plane is thrilling stuff, all the more so because it's so obviously REAL.

Well, the choppers crashing into the cliffs are models - but REAL models.

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