Space Cowboys (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In a year of debacles and big budget implosions like Supernova, Mission to Mars, and the unforgettable Battlefield Earth, the task of creating the most satisfying science fiction movie (to date) has been left to veteran director Clint Eastwood. While his overlong Space Cowboys is not a portrait of cinematic perfection, it is consistently engaging, features likable, irascible characters, and does not descend into the shoot-and-scoot idiocy that has marked far too many recent outer space endeavors. While there are definitely a few plot point similarities between Space Cowboys and Armageddon, in tone and approach, Eastwood's effort owes more to Contact.

During the course of a long and productive career as an actor, producer, and director, Eastwood has worked in a wide variety of genres. As the Man With No Name, he strode through several of the best-known "Spaghetti Westerns." As Dirty Harry Callahan, his lips spat out one-liners as quickly as his gun spewed lead. He has also been a secret service agent in In the Line of Fire, an investigative journalist in True Crime, a thoughtful photographer in The Bridges of Madison County, and Clyde the orangutan's best friend in Every Which Way But Loose/Every Which Way You Can. Behind the camera, he has directed such well-respected movies as Heartbreak Ridge, White Hunter Black Heart, and Unforgiven. However, before Space Cowboys, he has never been into outer space, nor has he worked with such a lavish special effects budget. (Virtually every shot in the last 45 minutes appears to have been visually enhanced.)

In 1958, the four men of Team Daedalus were the most experienced and daring that the Air Force had to offer. With their eyes on some day reaching outer space, they piloted prototype airplanes that broke speed and altitude records until their boss, Bob Gerson, shut them down when NASA was created. The team broke apart, each of them heading in separate directions - until 40 years later, when the orbit of the Russian communications satellite Icon begins to decay. The satellite has only five weeks before it burns up in the atmosphere, and the Russians are worried that its loss will cripple their telecommunications infrastructure and perhaps start a civil war. Gerson (James Cromwell), now a bigshot at NASA, sees an opportunity to help the Russians save face. But Icon's antiquated guidance system will not respond to commands sent from Earth and no one currently at NASA knows how to fix it. So, grudgingly, Gerson approaches Frank Corvin (Eastwood), the leader of Team Daedalus and the creator of Icon's "dinosaur" guidance system. Frank agrees to help, but there's a condition: he and the other three members of his team - pilot Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), navigator Tank Sullivan (James Garner), and structural engineer Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland) - must be on the space shuttle when it launches. NASA counters with terms of its own. Frank must agree to take two current astronauts, Ethan Glance (Loren Dean) and Roger Hines (Courtney B. Vance), with him, and the members of Team Daedalus must be able to qualify for the trip by passing the training program.

The longest portion of Space Cowboys is the setup, which comprises about 60% of the running length. While I appreciate movies that take the time to introduce the characters and situations and slowly ease into the action, Space Cowboys lets this part of the film run too long. Some of the material presented during this portion is redundant and unnecessary, such as the lengthy sequence in which the Team Daedalus members are reunited and the obligatory barroom brawl which emphasizes interpersonal friction we're already aware of. The same degree of character development and background material could have been presented in about two-thirds of the time. Once the action shifts to the space shuttle, however, things move at a taut pace.

Those going to Space Cowboys expecting aliens and space warfare will have wandered into the wrong theater. The film's intent is not to challenge the likes of Independence Day and Star Wars. The premise is not designed to test a viewer's willing suspension of disbelief. Space Cowboys uses technology that is currently available, and, as an engineer, I didn't notice any obvious goofs. But, as Apollo 13 taught viewers, it's possible to have a low-key space adventure with a great deal of tension - all that must happen is for something to go wrong. And that's exactly what fuels this movie's climactic segments.

A significant portion of Space Cowboys' appeal results from the four leads, all of whom possess high viewer recognition and comfort levels. We like these guys and enjoy being in their company for two hours. Eastwood is careful to balance the ensemble, not giving himself all the prime material. For example, Garner and Sutherland share the best one-liners and Jones gets the girl (in this case, Marcia Gay Harden). This allows Eastwood to do what he does best - stay calm under pressure and perform some low key heroics. The sense of camaraderie within the group is more tangible than in many of the conventional buddy movies that invade multiplexes on a regular basis.

The second half of Space Cowboys is special effects-laden. These are not cutting-edge, Star Wars visuals; they're merely designed to convince viewers that the action is transpiring in space. Except for an occasional glitch, they succeed at that, and the few awkward moments do not distract for long. There is, however, one instance in which postproduction work creates an odd effect. During the ten minute, black-and-white, 1958 prologue, the five main characters (the Team Daedalus members and Gerson) are played by younger actors, but their dialogue is dubbed by Eastwood, Jones, Garner, Sutherland, and Cromwell. This generates an unusual audio/visual disconnect.

Undoubtedly, the return of John Glenn to space was the inspiration for Ken Kaufman & Howard Klausner's screenplay. In the movies, putting senior citizens in space is nothing new (consider the crew of the Starship Enterprise), but this is the first time it has been done semi-realistically. The screenplay incorporates a lot of material, including secret cold war politics, cover-ups, political infighting, melodrama, media manipulation, male bonding, and, of course, science fiction action/adventure. Some of these elements work better than others, but, taken as a whole, they make for an entertaining ride. Space Cowboys is a blast for those who don't mind geriatric heroes.

Space Cowboys (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2000-08-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1