If there’s a Heaven, I hope that it’s full of popcorn and cinema. One of the reasons why I enjoy watching movies is because I often do so in the company of others. Whether I’m at home or at a theatre, there is something about the shared experience of screening a movie at the same time with family, friends, and strangers alike that appeals to me. One of the more memorable cases in point took place in the Summer of 1980, when I saw The Final Countdown: Countdown with my parents.
I liked the idea of Countdown more than the finished product. The movie revolves around the intrepid crew of U.S.S. Nimitz, a United States Navy aircraft carrier. The Nimitz goes through a time vortex, which transports them to December 6, 1941, the day before the Pearl Harbor invasion. This presents a moral conundrum: should the Nimitz, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry, circa 1980, ward off the Japanese air assault, or should they refrain, knowing that such an act might change the proverbial course of American history forever? What to do?
My father chain smoked and munched popcorn with gusto throughout Countdown. His longest drags and quickest, loudest munches and crunches came when the actors James Farentino and Martin Sheen were on the screen. In Countdown, Sheen plays Lasky, an observer employed by Mr. Tideman, whose company made the Nimitz. Tideman orders Lasky to go on board the Nimitz and see how things are operating. Farentino plays Commander Owens, one of the Nimitz’s main officers. Then comes the vortex. Pearl Harbor. Fight scenes. Melodrama. Shock and disbelief. And more. Get your popcorn ready.
“Lookit, Mojo,” my father said, when Commander Owens first appeared in Countdown. “There’s James Farentino! He’s Italian. And a Brooklyn guy. We gotta root for him.”
In retrospect, my father’s words about Farentino were more memorable than any of Countdown’s dialogue. Nevertheless, I watched with interest as Owens got left behind in 1941, while the rest of the Nimitz’s crew and passengers made it back to 1980.
When the Nimitz returned to the 80’s, I thought of the movie The Black Hole, which I had seen the year before with my parents and sister. The Cygnus, the main vessel and galactic haunted house of that film, also provided the setting, the dramatic nerve center where the majority of its action took place. It is to The Black Hole what the Nimitz is to Countdown. Both films were interesting to look at it, and their concepts were fascinating. Unfortunately, as was the case with Countdown, The Black Hole’s dialogue was talky and tedious.
Having first seen these movies in my boyhood, I was all about ideas. Time travel was a topic that Countdown and The Black Hole worked with in ways that intrigued me. I was a child of the 1970’s: the decade when 8 of the first 12 human beings walked on the moon; when going to the moon was considered by some to be routine; when Sci-Fi adventure films such as Star Wars and Star Trek started their runs as blockbuster franchises and captured filmgoers’ imaginations. Studios rushed to make Sci-Fi movies, or ones that had Sci-Fi elements, such as Countdown. I can’t help but wonder if both, The Black Hole and Countdown would have been more cogent, resonant, and acclaimed if they had tighter scripts; if they invested more craft and rumination in what the actors said as much as they did on their respective technical aspects, the facts that both movies were profitable notwithstanding. Time travel was where the money was, especially given that a new decade, the 1980’s, had begun, one that was about to be defined in the U.S.A. by President Ronald Reagan as “Morning in America;” as a decade where young adults across the country became upwardly mobile, including my parents, who had begun to work longer hours and save money for a down payment for a bigger house on a block where each residence looked the same. Keeping up appearances has always been good business for the (good ol’) U.S. of A. and its most influential people.
Movies are a visual medium. A film’s look is as least as important as how it speaks and sounds, if not more so. That the Nimitz was an actual US Navy ship gaveCountdown authenticity. Seeing the actors hit their marks on a ship that was battle-ready was convincing. With his olive skin, dark hair and eyes, James Farentino looked like people I grew up with, which added to the film’s appeal to me and my parents, especially in the film’s big reveal: Mr. Tideman is the elderly self of Commander Owens. Even more than the time travel plot device, this is Countdown’s main gimmick, which delighted my father beyond measure.
“Two roles! Farentino played two roles. Columbus—an Italian discovered America, and another one rescues it. Madone!”
Decades later, Countdown strikes me as a missed opportunity. If the film’s production and writing teams wanted to make a roller-coaster, I submit that they should have purchased stock in Six Flags. I’m not a filmmaker, but having been raised on a steady diet of Steven Spielberg films, I know that it’s possible for a film to have the stuff of poignancy and serious bank. While Don Taylor was a fine director, I can’t help but feel that a close study and embracement of Spielberg’s directorial values might have served Countdown (and perhaps his legacy) better. It might have been more than a film of its time. The technical wizardry of its special effects continued the new standard of box-office profits that Star Wars had started: blockbusters that were frenetic thrill rides. To paraphrase James Earl Jones in Star Wars, I find its lack of substance disappointing.
And yet, I had fun watching Countdown when I first saw it. It was the first Martin Sheen performance I saw on a movie screen, which made me appreciate his turn inApocalypse Now when I saw it on cable TV a few years later. That Harrison Ford, who I had come to know from his performances as Han Solo from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and American Graffiti, and Marlon Brando, who I saw play Jor-El in Superman: The Movie and Vito Corleone in The Godfather were also in Apocalypse Now, piqued my interest in their work further. I began to understand the phrase “familiar faces” in new ways from Sheen, via Farentino, Ford, and Brando.
Other than Farentino’s guest appearances in the TV medical drama ER, I saw little else of his post-Countdown work. When he died in 2012, I learned that his entertainment career spanned five decades. Farentino earned two Golden Globe nominations, one of which he won in 1967, in the Most Promising Newcomer category for his performance in the 1966 comedy The Pad and How to Use It. I thought of his dual role of Commander Owens/Mr. Tideman. My memory was sucked into a vortex. I traveled back to 1980; popcorn bits in my father’s moustache; a trail of Benson and Hedges smoke, drifting in the buttery, flat-soda scented, multiplex air.
Joey Nicoletti’s latest book, Thundersnow, is available at Amazon and Grandma Moses Press. He teaches creative writing at SUNY Buffalo State College.