Space Cowboys, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring the winning crew of Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner, looked like it could be a good time. While the first hour is an entertaining and human story, the second hour succumbs to the Hollywood malady of overwrought, effects-driven excess and predictability. It’s another in a long series of films following the same tiresome, worn-out pattern.
Do the studios really think audiences are so feeble-minded? Granted, we’re not meant to take Space Cowboys seriously. Eastwood obviously wanted to gather a few of his cronies to have some fun making a space movie. And while they do have fun for the first half, it was likely love of a paycheck that made the ridiculous second half palatable for these venerable actors.
Eastwood plays Frank Corvin, a former top Air Force test pilot whose dreams of space flight were dashed in 1958 by a mean-spirited commander who sent a more compliant chimpanzee to space in his place. Like the rest of his maverick Daedalus crew from the Air Force Flight Test Center, Frank found something else to do with his life. He turned to designing guidance systems for Skylab. Tank (James Garner), the navigator, became a Baptist minister and grandfather; Jerry (Donald Sutherland), the ladies man, used his structural engineer and design skills to build roller coasters; and Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), the pilot, moved to Utah to fly crop dusters. It’s a great ensemble.
When NASA is ordered by the vice president to help Russia fix one of its old communications satellites—after four decades in orbit it’s about to fall out of orbit and plunge to Earth—they call Frank, the man who designed the guidance system that’s now failing. (Those hot young NASA engineers may be technology whizzes, but they don’t speak the language of obsolete Cold War technology.) The project coordinator at NASA is none other than Gerson (James Cromwell), that nasty commander who kept Frank and his crew out of the space program and now must ask his old nemesis for a favor.
Frank isn’t cutting the jerk any slack. The bird is too big to bring back to Earth to fix, and they don’t have enough time to get a team up to speed and sent into space for on-site repairs. So Frank comes up with another solution—send up the old Daedalus crew, who know all the old parts. Forget that they flew fighter jets 42 years ago and have never been near a space shuttle. Details, details.
Frank’s not budging on this one, and gives the hated Gerson no choice. He tracks down his old pals, who one by one agree to sign on to this seemingly mad mission. They’ve all been waiting 40 years to go into space, so who cares if they’re becoming as obsolete as the failing Russian satellite? (Every old friend Hawk asks about is dead, prompting him to ask his pals, “Did you notice that everyone seems to be dead these days?”)
Gerson agrees to Frank’s plan, at least on paper, letting Frank know that his crew will have to meet the same exacting standards as the young bucks, pass the same physicals and undergo the same intensive mission training in 30 days instead of the usual 12 months. They may have been the best in their day, but they’re retirees relying on Medicare now. Gerson is sure the Daedalus crew will never meet NASA’s tough standards. He has no intention of letting the old boys go up; he’ll just get them to train two hotshot young astronauts as back-up, then take the back-ups into space.
But the old crew passes the tests. Jerry, who can’t see a thing without his jelly-jar glasses, memorizes the eye chart to easily pass the eye test. Apparently NASA doesn’t monitor its tests too closely. Nor does it ask many questions about how an American guidance system got into a Soviet satellite during the Cold War. Frank asks the question, but no one else gives it much thought.
Of course, the whole premise of Space Cowboys requires a suspension of belief, but in the first hour you’re willing to go along just to see the four actors work their charm together on-screen. Apart from Garner, who doesn’t get to do much except deliver a pallid sermon and a quick prayer, they are very engaging characters. Eastwood and Jones are in the best shape of the four still vital, vigorous men. Sutherland has a ball as the playful lecher whose false teeth and bad eyes don’t get in the way of his flirting with all the young women. They may be “The Ripe Stuff” as the press dubs them, but they’re hardly past their expiration date.
It’s too bad, then, that once they blast off for space the film falls apart. Moving from the preposterous to the idiotic, it turns into a standard overblown space rescue against-all-odds. They have only a 42-hour window to repair the guidance system. You’re waiting for them to uncover what’s really on board that behemoth Russian satellite. You know one of them will make the requisite heroic sacrifice, a couple will get injured but make it, and the shuttle, despite sustaining devastating major damage, will make it home. There are no surprises here except the embarrassingly sentimental and contrived final shot. What was Eastwood thinking? After reading the script, he should have insisted mission control make some vital repairs before launching this one. Houston, we have a problem.
Space Cowboys (PG-13) HH Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner. u