It All Was True


Did’ja see the 1977 movie Capricorn One?  You know, the one about the fake moon landing—

Uhhh—  No, wait—scratch that.  I don’t mean that at all, not at ALL.  No, Capricorn One is the one about the fake—I mean, it’s fictional, it’s a fictional film, a fake story about a faked moo, I mean MARS… yes, that’s it, it’s about a faked Mars landing—you know, Mars, that little red planet out there (where all the Martians and those funny little tripod ships they fly come from); anyway, the movie’s about this faked landing on Mars, the real landing not taking place because nobody from NASA could figure out how to pull off the damn thing, so they fake it instead, but, see, it’s only a MOVIE

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Looks awfully like tinfoil to me…

So, like I said, keep in mind (please…), Capricorn One is fiction—I emphasize, entirely FICTION—about a landing on Mars (you got that?—Mars) that doesn’t take place, and it has nothing, I repeat, NOTHING to do with that real event in 1969 that everyone in the world saw, including me, I was visiting family friends and I remember staying up very late and watching it on TV and it was tremendously exciting and we were all swept up in the excitement and of course we all believed it was true because it was on TV and, like, everything you see on TV—I mean, that is, it really was all true and real and authentic and factual and not fake, and DO YOU HEAR ME OUT THERE, NOT FAKED—

Though you could kinda see Capricorn One as a sort-of riff on all those conspiracy theories about the You Know What That I’m Not Mentioning, but, as I’ve said, it’s totally fictitious and made up, and has nothing to do with real life and reality and real events and what really truly absolutely happened a long time ago on TV, and I hope all of you reading this take it to heart and, uh…right, well, as long as that’s clear, and we’ve got it all straight about what’s factual and true…(I do hope no one from a government agency is reading this…)

So, now that’s, uh, settled

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The genesis of Capricorn One was with its writer-director, Peter Hyams—who, I hasten to add, is NOT Stanley Kubrick, no, no, a different guy entirely—  Anyway, Hyams had first mulled on the idea when he was working for CBS Television on its Apollo missions broadcast and, he said, came to a realization:  That the moon landing was the “one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses.  And the only verification we have … came from a TV camera.”

Just cogitate on that.  No objective in-the-flesh observers.  Just a TV camera.

Hyams really glommed onto something here—how media technology can manipulate, or even produce, a ‘reality’ via images which, when issued by ‘authoritative’ sources (such as a TV network), are accepted by the public as factually ‘true.’  In a 2014 interview the director noted how “[m]y generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullshit…. So I was watching these [space shuttle] simulations and I wondered what would happen if someone faked a whole story.”  That’s a disturbing thing to wonder about.  So disturbing that, if you were to take it to heart, you might start questioning the whole media-saturated history of the twentieth century…


Joe Rosenthal, 1945, “Raising the flag on Iwo Jima”; one of the most famous war photographs ever taken, but often suspected of being staged.

Which I think is what Hyams implies in Capricorn One.  From its start the film questions our acceptance of media images as something ‘real,’ as supposedly presenting events happening in the physical world.  This questioning is laced not only into the film’s diegetic story but into its very structure as a film.  Note the movie’s opening (post-credits) shot, a black screen with one piece of information on it:  January 4.  That’s all, nothing else.  Shot-wise, it’s paltry in terms of cinematic tech wizardry.  It’s so ordinary, we may not bother to register it as anything except as a brief conveyance of data, and minor data at that.


Despite its simplicity, though, that shot does something crucial:  It gives the story we’re about to see verisimilitude.  Because we’ve got a date here.  And dates are hard and factual things (like, oh…July 20, 1969).  This precise little day, January 4, sets in our minds that the Something we’re about to see is anchored in a specific time frame, in actual time.  And throughout, Hyams peppers his film with onscreen dates, as if tracking a chronology that marks out, like surveying pegs, a seeming narrative—one we can follow, from one point to the next, as in the mapping of an historical event.  The film is already priming us, via such deceptively simple means, to be drawn into, and to accept, without thinking much about it, that what we’re seeing is true.

By Jove, it doesn’t take much to get us hooked, does it?

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As the film has it, what’s happening on this January 4 day—or at least is supposed to—is NASA’s launch of the first manned space flight to Mars.  But seconds before takeoff, some anonymous guy in a suit (it’s always some anonymous guy in a suit…) orders the astronauts (James Brolin, O.J. Simpson, Sam Waterston) to leave the capsule.  The ‘launch’ blasts off as scheduled, but with an empty rocket and an uninformed viewing public not one whit the wiser.  Even the TV crew, onsite witnesses, and most of NASA personnel are fooled.  The script’s been worked out so completely, they just follow along.


Meanwhile, the three astronauts, imprisoned in a secret location, are told by NASA scientist Hal Holbrook that, due to faulty equipment, the actual flight was too risky to continue.  Rather than scrub the launch, however, Holbrook and a select few have decided to stage an elaborate Mars-landing hoax, so Congress will continue NASA funding.  The hapless astronauts are ‘persuaded’ to comply (Or Else, Holbrook ominously implies—including threats to the astronauts’ families), then left to stew in solitude, their only function to enact the feigned One-Step-For-Mankind for TV cameras.  It’s then they realize that NASA will have no further use for them, and they’ll have to do something real to save their lives.

All of this, I might add, happening (as with NASA funding) at taxpayer expense.

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What I found most shocking about this film was that NASA blatantly participated in its making—you can’t miss it, NASA logos are plastered everywhere; and there’s even a reference to the agency’s greatest achievement, which the movie’s whole premise is questioning (Holbrook casually mentions when “Armstrong stepped out on the moon”).  It’s almost as if NASA might have been daring viewers to wonder, like Hyams, about the received historical narrative of what the film’s tag line calls “The most important event in our nation’s history.”  Or even challenging us to think “…what if it never really happened?”  My own conspiracy theory (the film inspires them) about NASA’s participation is that it might have been afraid not to—afraid its absence might have led to further conspiracy theorizing from the public.  A damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation.

Lose-lose, either way.

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Capricorn One is part of that 1970s sort-of movie genre combining paranoia, conspiracy theory, and deep-in-the-bone cynicism so embedded in that post-Watergate decade.  Films like The Parallax View, Winter Kills, Chinatown, and The Conversation—now-iconic embodiments of such endemic pessimism—present a world in which nothing and no one can be trusted, all that we believed as true and enduring is false, and everyone in charge is lying to Us.  And in which the liars justify themselves by claiming it’s for our own good.  Such as Holbrook’s heartfelt rationale for perpetuating the fraud—because it will give the American public something to “believe” in.  Or, as sarcastically re-stated by one astronaut, “If we go along with you and lie our asses off, [then] the world of truth and ideals is protected.  But if we don’t…take part in some giant rip-off of yours, then somehow…we’re managing to ruin the country.”

Like, it’s their patriotic duty to lie…

And how convincing, as the movie shows, is this lie presented to the public, how beautifully and meticulously done, with the best technology on hand.  Holbrook and his fellow schemers design their own Mars set, complete with rocks, red dirt, and a module—tucked away onto a surprisingly small stage in a corner of a large room, but then, the watching TV public is not meant to see what’s beyond the fixed TV camera (those TV cameras…); and by now viewers are trained too well not to suspect anything suspicious outside its frame.  The film even demonstrates how, as one astronaut steps onto the ‘Martian’ surface, slow-motion technology creates a simulacrum of an alien, low-gravity world—meant to persuade viewers that, yes, they’re watching this event really take place.  Right before their lyin’ eyes.

Done by the book, you could say…

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Like other conspiracy-themed films of its time, Capricorn One evokes familiar paranoia/conspiracy tropes (Crusading Reporters! Anonymous Feds! Black Helicopters!) that are now standard to the genre (and to conspiracy theorizing in general).  It’s ’70s cynicism in overdrive; the conspirators are so ruthless, they even lie to and cheat each other.  The film twists and twirls our emotions as we watch those hissable faceless feds (in hissable faceless suits) plot, connive, alter, distort, and manipulate everything to come out their way, with, it seems, almost omniscient powers.  (“God,” I found myself muttering while I watched, “I hate those fucking feds…”)

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Yet unlike other conspiracy-minded movies, the film’s ending does pull back from the faceless abyss of despair and gloom.  Rather, it assures us that maybe, just maybe, a few plucky individuals can still defeat those overwhelming Forces of Evil.  Thus (spoiler coming) a Crusading Reporter (Elliot Gould), discovering the stinkin’ truth, outwits the bad guys and rescues the surviving astronaut (James Brolin), who then appears, at the very last minute, at his ‘memorial’ service, just in time to expose the space agency’s Big Lie.  It’s done so heroically and dramatically (and so perfectly timed), you wanna cheer and wave a flag.  Frank Capra would’ve been pleased.  It’s your typical Hollywood Happy Ending, with Truth, Justice, and The American Way winning out, as they always do.  Don’t they?  I mean—it’s what we want to believe

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But note something about that finale—as Brolin comes a’runnin’ up between the gravestones (in Arlington Cemetery, of all places), right when the President is sanctimoniously commemorating the fake mission, while everyone else is turning round to see, I mean, really, finally see, the living, material proof that the whole damn thing is a lie—

Did anything strike you about it?

That is…Did’ja notice that Hyams films Brolin running…in slow motion

Say, didn’t the film show us earlier how slow motion was used to manufacture the lie?

It’s like, in a meta sort of way, the film is telling us that even its happy ending is fake…

Jeez, I mean…if you can’t trust a Hollywood Happy Ending—what can you trust?

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Somehow those Black Helicopters always show up…

Bonus Clip:  Fake It Till You Land It:  Capricorn One‘s Mars landing scene, demonstrating one of the many creative uses of slo-mo.  Even though we cynical outsiders are clued to the scene’s fakery, we may still choke up when diegetic audiences cheer as the landing is announced (a savvy manipulation of our feelings).  Also note the little man who informs Hal Holbrook of the odd timing discrepancy in the video transmission—conspiracy-minded viewers know what’s gonna happen to him…:

You can watch Capricorn One here on YouTube (free with ads).  You can also watch it (also free with ads) on

More information on Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph can be found here.

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  1. Brian Schuck

     /  September 29, 2022

    I do believe you’ve got something there about Brolin’s slo-mo triumphal run at the end! Conventional wisdom would have it that Capricorn One bucked the trend of pessimistic endings in 70s conspiracy films like The Parallax View and Chinatown (two great films!). But you’ve convinced me that it’s one of the most subtly disturbing endings ever. Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the days when mainstream movies could pull off downer or even ambiguous endings (although, there are still oases to be found in some indie films and streaming shows).
    By the way, the TV movie The Astronaut (1971/2?) starring Monte Markham is very similar in theme to Capricorn One. In that one, NASA substitutes a look-alike for an astronaut who died on Mars in order to pretend that mission was successful (and to keep the gov’t $ flowing). It’s on Youtube if you’re interested.

    • I haven’t heard of the Markham film, but I will check it out – thanks for the info. I remember first seeing Capricorn One years ago and not remembering much about it; but rewatching it I was struck by how odd to have Brolin run on at the end in slo-mo (while all the other actors react to him in normal film speed). Maybe it was to emphasize his triumph, but it just seemed too *weird*…

      The early-mid 1970s was, to my thinking, the most interesting period of American moviemaking since the pre-Code era, and I think for similar reasons: cultural and economic upheaval at large, and, within Hollywood, dealing with new technologies as well as a loosening of censorship (plus the collapse of the studio system and the Production Code). Some of the best American cinema was made then, and I think in large part because filmmakers felt they could be more daring and ambiguous. It pretty much came to an end with the ‘blockbuster’ era heralded by Jaws and Star Wars, whose after-effects we still experience (all those super-hero franchises…). Like you note, cinematic creativity seems to have moved to small indie films and movies streamed online. As always, thanks for your insightful comments!


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