Space Cowboys (2000)

by Paul Varner


Just Another Cowboy Movie

Clint Eastwood, I guess, will always see himself as the ultimate icon of masculinity for his generation. The young Eastwood saved the Western film genre in the 1964 with the ultra-hip postmodern shoot-em-up A Fistful of Dollars. Then, in 1992, he brought us the aging gunfighter Will Penny in Unforgiven and showed his boomer generation that real men can keep their private parts intact even as they age. Now, once again, he puts on his spurs, so to speak, and with Space Cowboys sets out to prove, at an even more advanced age, that true masculinity — cowboy masculinity — still exists for his generation. And what better way for Eastwood to express this masculinity than by updating the Western as a movie about the space program?

Ever since Gene Roddenberry adapted old Wagon Train scripts for his early Star Trek episodes, space stories have relied heavily on the Western formula, and Space Cowboys is perhaps the ultimate tribute to the Western-outer space frontier analogy. By now the film’s plot is well known. Four former test pilots from the pre-NASA days are given the incredible chance to go into space at last, having been passed over in the 1950s. Frank Corvin (Eastwood) is the only engineer in the world who still knows the navigational system on an out-of-control Russian communications satellite, a relic of the Cold War that threatens to crash to the earth. The wily Corvin blackmails NASA into allowing him to enlist his old buddies from Team Daedelus to fly to the rescue. In other words, we have the classic plot of the old gunfighters brought out of retirement to save the town one more time from the outlaws who threaten it. Nobody, least of all the young gunfighters — here, the young astronauts — thinks they can do the job. Does this scenario sound like Alan Ladd’s Shane, or John Wayne’s The Shootist?

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 film looks to be a box office hit and most audiences have responded favorably to it. And who wouldn’t like it? It has all the great Eastwood ingredients for success — strong male characters, negligible women characters, good-time humor, and action that allows the characters to prove themselves after all the technology breaks down. But the film fails artistically, and that’s unfortunate, since Eastwood, both as actor and director, has brought artistic credibility to the often maligned Western, in his spaghetti Westerns, High Plains Drifter (1973) and Unforgiven. With Space Cowboys, he falls into traps he rarely has fallen into with the Westerns. Particularly, he confuses surface realism with realism of character and life. The line between good Westerns and bad Westerns, or between good films and bad films, at least in an artistic sense, is traditionally drawn according to their abilities to offer unique interpretations of life, and in particular, how they reveal meaning in our lives.

Are we better people for having watched Space Cowboys? We are, arguably, better people for having watched Unforgiven, just as we are, I am confident, better people for having read a Hemingway novel. Bad Westerns, such as Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), aim for authenticity of scene, costume, and historical moment, but they fail often in authenticity of human character and motivation. Typically, bad Westerns stick to their formulaic plots and hang on to their stereotyped characters for dear life, regardless of their external authenticity. The great Westerns place little emphasis on realistic external details. High Noon (1952) takes place in a small frontier town, but the plot and the characters are universal — at least as universal as anything else in the 1950s. Eastwood’s own A Fistful of Dollars is set who knows where below the border, and director Sergio Leone throws out all the old cliches in favor of an interpretation of life relevant to the late twentieth century.

Well, enough of the lecture. Here we are in 2000, and Clint Eastwood has forgotten the lessons he knows so well. What’s more, he has a reputation to live up to, as the quickest draw in the West. But not this time out. Here he gives us four grumpy old men playing the characters they have made famous in their previous roles. The exception might be Donald Sutherland, whose character, Jerry O’Neill, departs from the world-weary roles the actor made famous in JFK (1991) and A Time to Kill (1996), and actually becomes comic. Moreover, the secondary characters all seem to come from the bargain list at Central Casting. The one trait accorded the NASA flight director (William Devane) is the uncanny ability to chew large amounts of gum with his mouth open at all times. And the Russian engineer (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) comes straight from a Boris Badenov lookalike contest.

But, most painfully, Eastwood wastes a great opportunity when he reduces project coordinator Sarah Holland (Marcia Gay Harden) to a background element. Had Eastwood and screenwriters Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner developed Sarah into a strong character, they might have redeemed the film from being just another space jock story. Initially, she is an assertive engineer trying to solve the runaway satellite crisis, but then she’s lost in a minor romantic entanglement, and for all practical purposes, she might as well be shown serving coffee to the boys.

Louis L’Amour, billed by his publisher as the world’s most prolific Western writer, used to make grand claims for the realism of his novels. He walked over every inch of ground before he used a particular geographic locale in a novel. If the hero looks down from a certain ridge upon the old stage road, you can count on it that that ridge exists and that that angle of sight is accurate. If the hero shoots a Colt .44 in 1878, you can bet .44s were common in ‘78. But nobody really considers Louis L’Amour a great writer of realistic fiction because he never developed authentic Western characters. Similarly, Eastwood’s Space Cowboys is a great space story, and you can count on its details being authentic. But it’s not an authentic representation of twenty-first century life, much less contemporary masculinity. Let’s hope Clint Eastwood’s legacy as a director stems from Unforgiven, not Space Cowboys.

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