Screenplay : Ken Kaufman & Howard Klausner
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Clint Eastwood (Frank Corvin), Tommy Lee Jones (Hawk Hawkins), James Garner (Tank Sullivan), James Cromwell (Bob Gerson), Donald Sutherland (Jerry O'Nell), Loren Dean (Ethan Glance), Courtney B. Vance (Roger Hines), Aleksandr Kuznetsov (Russian Engineer)
Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys is a somewhat clumsy, but nevertheless enjoyable ode to the aged who aren't ready to declare themselves over the hill, a space adventure in which the heroes' mean age is well above 65. It is a movie where the young are mocked for being obnoxious and know-it-all, while the elderly are respected for their experience and knowledge. Of course, the fact that those in their autumn years sometimes act like obnoxious teenagers is just a way of showing that you're only as old as you feel.
At 71 years of age, Clint Eastwood has been starring in movies for 45 years and been directing them for 29. He is, in any sense of the word, a legend of cinema whose influence will be felt for years to come.
Yet, in the last few years, he has hit a slump, churning out forgettable films like 1999's TrueCrime, which suffered badly because Eastwood insisted on pushing himself as a young hero when, in fact, he is not. Eastwood's best films of the last 10 years, mostly notable Unforgiven (1992) and A Perfect World (1993), have taken into account his age and worked it into the narrative. As one character tells Eastwood's character in Space Cowboys, "I hate to tell you this, but you're an old man."
Eastwood stars as Frank Corvin, an aging ex-Air Force pilot who had been slated to be one of the first men in space until politicking and the creation of NASA got in the way. More than 40 years after learning that a monkey would be shot into space instead of him, NASA comes calling to Frank's doorstep. It seems that a Cold-War-relic Russian communications satellite is losing its orbit and will crash on Earth in less than two months. For political reasons that are left purposefully vague until the end of the film, it is imperative that the Americans help their new Russian allies fix the satellite and keep it in orbit.
The only problem is that the satellite is equipped with a circa-1969 guidance system that all the MIT graduates at NASA have no chance of understanding because it is so dated. "Whoever designed this dinosaur is probably breaking rocks in Siberia right now," one young NASA engineer gripes. As it turns out, Frank is the go-to man because it wasn't a Russian who designed the guidance system: It was him. Of course, how an American guidance system wound up in a Russian satellite at the height of the Cold War is a question that is brought up repeatedly by several different characters, despite the obviousness of the answer.
Having never gotten the chance to go to space, Frank jumps at the opportunity, even in the face of heavy resistance by NASA bureaucrat Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), who was largely responsible for keeping Frank out of space back in the 1960s. Frank essentially forces Gerson to allow him to go up, along with the members of his original team: Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), who now works as a stunt pilot; Tank Sullivan (James Garner), who is now a Baptist preacher; and Jerry O'Nell (Donald Sutherland), who has made a career of designing roller coasters.
The true enjoyment in Space Cowboys isn't in the obligatory training sequences or the hackneyed climax in which the astronauts learn that there is much more to the Russian communication satellite than they ever imagined. Rather, the enjoyment is in watching old pros Eastwood, Jones, Garner, and Sutherland chew the fat and play off each other. Yes, their characters are crotchety old cliches, from Sutherland's dirty old man to Eastwood and Jones' long-time rivalry and perpetual games of one-upmanship. The screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner isn't particularly imaginative, but it does leave enough room for these seasoned vets to show that age can be a good thing.
As a director, Eastwood seems to have worked himself into a comfortable rut. There are some grand moments, including the black-and-white opening shot, in which an X-2 rocket plane literally explodes out of the middle of the screen at the speed of sound, and the final tracking shot that starts in space and ends with an extreme close-up on the lunar surface in bizarre and ironic fashion. Much of the film has a perfunctory feel, but the performers are so enjoyable it hardly matters. In a culture that constantly celebrates younger and younger celebrities whose youth seems to be their only attribute, it is good to see some seasoned veterans of real talent take control for a while.
©2000 James Kendrick