Space Cowboys (2000)

by Cynthia Fuchs


Some People Call Me Maurice

The aging Clint Eastwood may act like a cantankerous old coot, but everyone knows that he’s still the great American Hero, fiercely loyal, exceedingly courageous, and wily like a fox. In his newest film, Space Cowboys, Eastwood crosses into another frontier, designing guidance systems for space satellites. Ripped from yesterday’s headlines — when that other aging American icon, John Glenn, went for a space shuttle ride — Space Cowboys presents Eastwood as a very smart fellow who, along with a team of seventysomething ex-Air Force test pilots, saves the planet from certain destruction.

Eastwood plays team leader and engineer extraordinaire Frank Corbin, whose circa-1969 Skylab guidance system has “somehow” ended up on Ikon, a Russian “communications satellite.” The verbal equivalents of these scare-quotes come up in various conversations about the mission, ominously indicating that something is not quite right about said mission, and that Clint will, by film’s end, be his usual awesomely righteous self and then some. Borrowing a few plot points from Armageddon, Space Cowboys casts the old guys as action heroes who must grapple with exploding rockets, floating about in endless space, long and heart-wrenching views of earth, and other ILM effects. (And when push comes to shove, Eastwood probably isn’t so much older than Bruce Willis or Arnold, and he’s got miles of attitude.)

cover art

Space Cowboys

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, Donald Sutherland, Marcia Gay Harden, James Cromwell

(Warner Bros.)

The mission Frank chooses to accept is this: Ikon’s guidance system has gone awry and the Russians (make that the Russian, as there’s only one in sight, played by (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) and NASA suits are in a panic: it must be stopped before it reenters earth’s atmosphere. And… da-dum… Frank is the only one who can repair it. Besides, he’s still pissed at NASA for taking over the Air Force’s space program and dumping him and his rowdy fellow flyboys back in 1958. The movie takes you through this pre-plot with five minutes or so of black-and-white cinematography under a mournful guitar (artfully recalling Unforgiven). Such self-important pictures of the men spinning in the air and crashing a $4 million jet, however redundant for anyone who’s seen The Right Stuff, adequately convey the pretty-to-think-so idea that men were “real” back then, until one of them speaks while facing the camera: at that moment, the illusion collapses, as the young actors on screen speak in the old actors’ voices, and their lips are quite out of synch.

Skip ahead to “Present Day,” when NASA and the Russian demand that Frank save their asses. And here it emerges that the film is premised on several patently ridiculous notions: 1) Frank and his team are fit to go into space, 2) Frank and his team can be retrained to pilot and run the computers on a shuttle in a month, and 3) not one NASA whippersnapper is able to learn the ancient guidance system in the same amount of time. Voila! Clint Eastwood is a Rocket Scientist. And it turns out — as it must in such contrivances — that his NASA commander is the very same Air Force General with whom he repeatedly tangled as a young man, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell playing his don’t-even-think-about-trusting-me scoundrel from LA Confidential). In crossing over to the “other side” — the know-nothing and untrustworthy civilians — Bob long since revealed his conniving and ambitious nature. After waiting for decades to get even, Frank is, as they say, ready to rumble.

And so, he reassembles the old Team Daedalus — super-pilot Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), astrophysicist and roller coaster designer Jerry (Donald Sutherland), and robotics expert Tank (James Garner) — all of whom retain their pithy character traits. Hawk (now a widower) and Frank (happily married) are relentlessly and childishly competitive with one another, Jerry’s a ladies’ man, flirting outrageously with every woman who comes within arm’s reach, and Tank is the friendly tagalong, woof woof. Their complicated and guys-will-be-guys friendship is at the film’s core, exemplifying its thematic investment in old-fashioned values like loyalty, persistence, and black eyes as signs of genuine affection. These kids today, they just don’t get it: they’re too self-involved and superficial, they don’t revere aging as a cultural, political or personal process. Space Cowboys draws attention to this disrespect, by showing its aging characters in two different and related modes: clinging to their former self-images and throwing their worldly weight around. How hard must it be to grow old in public? At one point the film even offers a minute of meta-commentary on aging as spectacle: Frank, Hawk, Jerry, and Tank do Leno, yukking it up on the couch and looking much like the four actors did when they appeared on the Tonight Show just this last Monday (8-1-00). As real-life actors, they talked about how hard they worked to make the film realistic; in the film, they joke about getting laid. Now, which is the more spectacular self-presentation? And which is more insightful regarding the difficulties of growing old, in public and in one’s own mind?

The Team Daedalus members soon realize that it is them against this newfangled population, and put aside their past squabbles (Hawk and Frank haven’t spoken in decades) and re-bond big time. This masculine — and masculinizing — ritual takes place over an hour or so of montages, showing the guys training, bar-fighting, and reaffirming their manly love for one another. Hawk even gets to fall in love with a woman again, namely, mission engineer Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden in an atrocious hair-do and painful-looking lady-scientist suits). You’ve also seen this sort of guyness-affirming imagery before: they run around the track, sweat and complain, they ride G-force machines that pull back the skin on their faces, they train underwater to practice weightlessness.

In between sparring with one another and flirting with a couple of women doctors (for one, ophthalmologist Blair Brown shares a moment of mutual attraction with Sutherland), the cowboys learn to play well with a pair of generation-next space shuttle specialists, snooty Ethan (Loren Dean) and pleasant Roger (Courtney B. Vance), who has precious few lines before he’s knocked unconscious during the mission (hey, at least he had a few lines). After all the time spent on good ol boy characterizing, the mission itself constitutes only a small slice of the film’s running time. And here again, the images are standard: Mission Control people — including flight director Gene (William Devane) — watch their screens and look worried, astronauts float in their pod and look worried, and oh yes, that cunning Russian lurks in the background looking damn furtive. Who says the Cold War is over?

But like I say, the plot counts for precious little of this film’s interest, both what makes it interesting and what it is interested in. As a grand hurrah for golden years, it’s like a more expensive and elaborate Grumpy Old Men or My Fellow Americans, making some jokes at the older characters’ expense, but more emphatically, making certain that the uppity young folks gain new esteem for experience, wisdom, and scientific brilliance by film’s end. That’s Mr. Space Cowboy, to you.

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