Robert Altman Before and After ‘M*A*S*H’: ‘Countdown’ & ‘Brewster McCloud’

Countdown, scripted by Loring Mandel, is science fiction only by historical accident; it came out not long before the Apollo 11 mission and imagines a revised scenario for putting a man on the moon. In terms of realistic astronaut movies, it’s the aesthetic and cinematic midpoint between Destination Moon (1950 sci-fi docudrama on how it might be) and The Right Stuff (1983 historical docudrama on earlier developments in manned spaceflight). Its combination of docudrama and mild soap opera is also reminiscent of a glossy mainstream movie from a few years earlier, Richard Donner’s X-15 (1961).

Robert Duvall plays a military-trained astronaut who expects to be the first man on the moon, but when the Apollo schedule is jump-started by an emergency, James Caan is picked for a separate mission. There’s tension between the friends, there’s tension with Caan’s worried wife (Joanna Moore), there’s training galore, and in the last, best part of the fim, there’s finally the sober poetry of the lonely lunar trip. The women have nothing to do, and this is almost emphasized as they’re presented as pretty encumbrances who must share their own sub-world without stepping out of line while the boys shout at each other.

You won’t find it Altmanesque unless you’ve seen the next 40 years of Altman. It’s mostly a traditional presentation of conversations and close-ups within widescreen compositions, with a few restrained moments of visual drift. There are quite a few scenes where people are talking at once but rarely is the ambient noise very busy; it passes as the Sidney Lumet kind of realism. Before assuming that producer William Conrad reined in Altman’s instincts too grossly, we must remember that Altman (like Lumet) was a solid graduate of TV presentation and was testing the waters here. That said, Altman was apparently fired after production; the contrasting stories of what happened are summarized in the film’s entry on the TCM website.

The opening credits are an odd combination of ’50s Hollywood style (already dated) and neo-Altman, with Leonard Rosenman’s abstract modernist tones (instead of marches or fanfares) foreshadowing such films as Images or 3 Women. When Altman’s name appears, the camera does that idiosyncratic transitional zoom-in (to a strut on a satellite dish) that the audience couldn’t have known would become a visual signature.

The women have more to do in Brewster McCloud, though it’s never entirely clear what. Brewster (Bud Cort of Harold and Maude) plays a virginal nebbish who hides in the newly-built Houston Astrodome and builds Da Vinci-esque wings. But wait — will he lose his virginity, and therefore his ability to fly, to tour guide Shelley Duvall? Meanwhile, over in the ramshackle plot, various unpleasant characters die of mysterious strangulation after being marked by bird poop. One of these is Margaret Hamilton, finally wearing the ruby slippers as we hear the strains of “Over the Rainbow” — a nice touch.

Viewers might suppose the murders are committed by the “holy innocent” Brewster, though this flyweight is hardly capable of taking on some of these victims. The responsible party might be Sally Kellerman, a maternal yet sexy figure who drifts ambiguously through scenes as Brewster’s trench-coated angel (we assume), complete with scars where wings might have been. Is she a fallen angel? While Kellerman’s character in M*A*S*H was humiliated via exposure in her shower, her character here publicly bathes in a fountain scene that’s three things at once: an in-joke, one of the movie’s many bird references, and possibly a salute to the famous fountain scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Brewster McCloud

From today’s perspective, Kellerman’s role also should remind Altman fans of Virginia Madsen’s part as the presumed Angel of Death in the director’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion. The recurrence of the trench-coated woman at either end of Altman’s output makes us meditate on the differences between the films and these segments of Altman’s career. That final film comes from an era of a successful master’s embrace of serenity, the generosity of someone who recognizes himself as belonging to the same species as his subjects, while his “classic” period (of Brewster) bespeaks the anger and cynicism of one who gleefully sends the angel to reap without thinking that the bell tolls for him.

This movie is also a product of its era: early in the new MPAA rating system and the freedom of early ’70s Hollywood. As such, it has many examples of Altman’s vulgarity, the desire to “shock” in a funny way, to flaunt the tasteful proprieties by giving the finger to racists, misogynist bullies, the authories, the wealthy–the establishment, man. However, the quixotic and neutered Brewster stands (or rather plummets) as a curious critique of the social rebel, since he’s hardly found a solution.

This film’s rough, stubborn perversities help it stick in the mind as much as its distinctive Altman-isms. As a social, political, and sexual allegory, the messages are mixed to say the least, although Doran William Cannon’s script seems consistent within its own crazy assumptions. Cannon also has the, ahem, distinction of having written Otto Preminger’s notorious Skidoo, which gives us an interesting idea for a double-feature.

Altman made the film fresh from his triumph with M*A*S*H, and although I’d tend to dock a point for inclusion of that movie’s poster as a too-cute background wink, I add it back for the poster of one of the great overlooked comedies of the era, Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher.

RATING 6 / 10