On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 fulfilled martryed President Kennedy's directive for a successful lunar mission. Countdown was made eighteen months later, and lacking a crystal ball, posed a question that would soon become irrelevant. Should the U.S. strand someone on the moon in order to get there first? After all, getting back alive was the hard part.
It's not much of a moral puzzler for Countdown. The program is Pilgrim, although Crusoe or even Dreyfuss (who was wrongly and miserably imprisoned at Devil's Island) might be more accurate. The real question is, who will be the one to sit in a lunar module for months with a stack of books for companionship? Ultra-competitive Chiz (Robert Duvall) is the first candidate, but he loses his position through NASA politics to Stegler (James Caan), a good-natured family man.
Countdown takes itself very seriously, and is nearly the opposite of what you would expect from a Robert Altman film. Altman's big break would come two years later, with M*A*S*H, and like Kubrick before The Killing, he was not yet in a position to make his mark.
Countdown is more grim than Apollo 13, but it is not as good as the latter film. The difference is not that Caan isn't Tom Hanks: Caan has his sly ways, and he never emotes for the camera. It's the conventionality of Countdown that burdens it: the suffering but 'good' wife, the rival with a swelled head, the dangerous mission, the loss of radio contact for help, the blustering political hacks who must be circumvented (Ted Knight, seemingly already typecast as Ted Baxter without yet having played him).
The only surprises are in the finale. Since I am about to spill the beans, avert your eyes to avoid spoilers. Caan lands on the moon without a dramatic line like that delivered by (but likely ghostwritten for) Neil Armstrong: "One small step for man, a great leap for mankind."
No, Caan says nothing at all, because his suit lacks radio contact. With three hours to find his lunar pup tent before his oxygen runs out, he wastes time exploring the Russian landing site, which in an enormous coincidence is a stone's throw from his own capsule. But a happy ending is required because, after all, we can't let the Russians win.
Countdown is better than my overly cynical review describes it. Caan and Duvall do just fine, and Joanna Moore also performs well given the limitations of her role. Worried wife? Proud wife? Loyal wife? If you can't decide, shift from one position to another.
But there I go again criticizing poor Countdown, a little movie with big ambitions and a quality cast. It's much better than The Abyss, and not just because Caan isn't rescued by translucent jellyfish aliens.