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SPACE COWBOYS(director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriters: Ken Kaufman/Howard Klausner; cinematographer: Jack N. Green; editor: Joel Cox; cast: Clint Eastwood (Frank Corvin), Tommy Lee Jones (Hawk Hawkins), Donald Sutherland (Jerry O’Neil), James Garner (Tank Sullivan), Marcia Gay Harden (Sara Holland), William Devane (Eugene Davis), Loren Dean (Ethan Glance), Courtney B. Vance (Roger Hines), James Cromwell (Bob Gerson), Rade Serbedzija (Russian General); Runtime: 126; Warner Brothers; 2000)
“This is not one of Clint’s top films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Space Cowboys” opens in 1958 at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert. The black-and-white photography starkly highlights the empty sky and the frolicking nature of four test pilots who are breaking the sound barrier in the experimental X-2 rocket plane. But, in the process of their daredevil tactics, the pilot and co-pilot have to bail out and crash the expensive plane. As a result the snaky officer in charge, James Cromwell, grounds them from further space missions and to add insult to injury, announces that a monkey will be the first to orbit space. He also announces that a new organization called NASA will use astronauts for further space exploration, no longer will the Air Force be in charge of the program.

Cromwell is faced with a crisis 42 years later, as a joint program between the U.S. and Russia, has run into a problem–the Russian satellite communication ship Ikon has developed a failure in the system and is about to crash. As a gesture of good will and political diplomacy, Cromwell offers to send his team of astronauts to repair the problem. But the system is an antiquated one and was built by Clint Eastwood when he was the engineer designer for Skylab, and it turns out that Clint is the only one who knows how to locate and fix the problem in that obsolete system. These new engineers and young astronauts have all been raised on computer technology and have no idea about the old language used in space technology, to the disbelief of Clint.

Cromwell, on the urgings of a space agency head, Marcia Gay Harden, whose expertise is in engineering, decides to contact his old rival Clint for help. When told about it in his suburban California home, Clint who is living in retirement with his wife tells Marcia he doesn’t trust Cromwell. When he meets with Cromwell he tells him that he will not train the astronauts because there is not enough time to do so, and refuses to budge from his position even when ridiculed for not being a team player. He says: I will only fix the problem if my old Daedalus Team goes on the mission, which is met by jeers from Cromwell. They work out a deal whereby the geriatric crew can go, but with the provision that they must pass the physical and endurance tests. The crusty flight director of the program, William Devane, also insists that two of his hotshot astronauts, Loren Dean and Courtney B. Vance, go along, especially, since the old codgers are not familiar with the new computer systems that run the space vehicles nowadays.

To add some cold war paranoia to the story, Clint wonders how the Russians got his equipment since it was classified information, only available to the Americans.

When Clint’s blackmail strategy works, he goes to gather the other senior citizens to join the mission. He finds James Garner in Oklahoma City, where he is a second-rate Baptist preacher; Donald Sutherland is designing roller coasters and sports a gray pony tail, wears glasses and has false teeth — he is pictured as a friendly wolf around the younger ladies. He will be the flight engineer; Tommy Lee Jones is at least twenty years younger than those other three seventy-plus seniors. He is not on good terms with Clint ever since they were grounded from any further space missions as pilots in 1958 and Clint blamed him for being a reckless pilot, someone who took too many risks. Tommy is now working as a stunt pilot on a crop-duster, giving harrowing rides on request. After thinking about the chance to go into space, a dream all the men had, Tommy decides to go along and make history with the other men. This premise would seem improbable but for the recent real-life news of the geriatric John Glenn going on a space mission for experimental purposes. It shows that their mission is possible, though not in the manner as depicted in this fantasy film.

The story takes the men through their training sessions. Tommy, who is a widower, has a romantic spin with Marcia, who looks attractive despite her official looking NASA hairstyle. Donald acts like the improvident reader of 1958 Playboy magazines he was back then, showing that his lifestyle hasn’t changed even with his advancing years. While Garner has faith in God and his lucky dancing doll, but is given the short-end of the script and therefore has only a few lines in his competition with the others.

There are a lot of good natured jokes about aging and some friendly ribbing between the young astronauts and the veterans and it all seems pleasantly entertaining, though somewhat staged. Clint even makes fun of some of his older pictures, which I presume is why he has so much fun with the monkey in the opening scene.

There’s a heaviness when America’s old cold war paranoia was introduced into the mission. The paranoia is a reminder from those cold war days, when many Americans thought that the Russians were looking for a chance to nuke America.

The mission turns out to be more dangerous than first perceived, as betrayal and nukes surface.

Through the wonderful special effects aided by the full cooperation of NASA as consultants, there were many spectacular shots of space travel. And when Clint is able to make an impossible landing, something Hollywood films are good at doing, there is a sense of relief that the old timer who now has a lined and craggy face and looks like an American icon, is safe and sound. Since the film didn’t take itself so seriously, there was no undue tension and everything was done in fun.

This is not one of Clint’s top films but if it is his swan song as rumored, there are a lot of reasons why this is not a bad film to end one’s career on. The love and affection from his fellow actors comes through loud and clear. It shows Clint could direct with the skills that only the most competent Hollywood directors possessed. Though Clint never reached greatness himself as a director, as he was unable to overcome his artistic limitations. What he couldn’t do, was move beyond the easy humor and special effects and make a film that had something involving to say about old age and those facing death.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”