#26 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
The first film Clint Eastwood made that wasn’t based on a book in several years, Space Cowboys is a fun, geriatric adventure for most of its running time. Without taking itself too seriously through its first two acts, it is consistently entertaining until it suddenly shifts tones to become far more serious when all the fun drains out of it. It’s a sad ending to what had been a modestly ambitioned yarn that had used its aging movie stars extremely well for so long.
The movie begins with a flashback, and I think Eastwood found an interesting and very effective way to portray his aged actors as young men. If this were made today, the solution would be an effort to de-age them (a process that would be wildly expensive to accomplish). Instead, without even that tool available, Eastwood simply cast younger actors and then dubbed over their voices with the older actors. So, we see Toby Stevens, who looks like he could be an Eastwood son or grandson to a certain degree, but we hear Eastwood’s distinctive voice. The same with Eli Craig and Tommy Lee Jones’ voice. It’s simple and effective, and I kind of love it as a solution to an interesting problem: how do you get audiences to identify these younger men as the older men we spend most of the movie with?
Anyway, Frank Corvin (Eastwood) and Hawk (Jones) are Air Force test pilots in the late 50s testing out the X-2 that Hawk pushes too far until it crashes. This angers their superior Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) to the point that he embarrasses them at a press conference announcing the creation of NASA where he introduces the first astronaut: a chimpanzee. Flash forward forty years, and everyone is old. Gershon is still working for NASA and has a problem: an old Soviet satellite is due to crash into our atmosphere and the Russians really don’t want it too. There’s some intrigue about why Gershon is so on board with all this (it’s obvious what’s going on from the moment it’s introduced), made all the worse by the fact that the satellite’s guidance system is the same one that was used on Skylab, a guidance system that Frank Corvin designed.
Being so old, the guidance system is beyond the knowledge of any of the current engineers, and engineer Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden) goes to Frank to bring him in to consult. He agrees only if he gets to go on the mission, a proposition Gerson agrees to without any intention of following through on. Then, it’s bringing the team back together. First there’s Tank (James Garner), who has become a Baptist preacher, and then there’s Jerry (Donald Sutherland), a structural engineer who builds rollercoasters and beds women fifty years his junior regularly. Finally it’s Hawk, and the two have a strained relationship that he’s willing to overcome if it somehow gets him into space.
The joys of this film are here along with their training at NASA as they go head to head against the younger astronauts led by Ethan Glance (Loren Dean). The interplay between the older actors is fun. The film spends the time to fully establish them as characters, and then Eastwood just lets everyone goof off a bit, creating a certain infectious energy as they compete with each other, complain about the ravages of age, and try to hit on younger women. The competition with the younger astronauts has a wonderful tit for tat quality, especially with the two groups sending each other joke foods in the cafeteria. Their mission up becomes inevitable, though, when news leaks to the press of the old men going into space and they become minor celebrities, increasing NASA’s profile in ways they could have only imagined.
Of course, real work is going on amidst the competitions in the G-Force Accelerator about who will pass out first. Led by the flight director Gene Davis (William Devane), they are getting ready to figure out what’s wrong with the guidance system and endure a punishing physical experience. However, the seriousness of the enterprise takes over once they get into space, and we never even get a real slow down of the action for a sense of wonder at this goal these men had given up on for forty years. It’s just efficient storytelling to get to the next moment, and it’s also a tonal clash with most of the rest of the film that came before it.
There’s real danger up there, and the movie hadn’t really been building up to it, so it feels out of place. The mystery was never much of a mystery, and when it gets revealed, it’s a wonder that Gerson ever thought he could get away with it. It’s also kind of a mess of specific details that don’t make a whole lot of sense, probably because the script needed a rewrite to make the Russians responsible for the satellite instead of NASA, which they didn’t like and threatened to pull their support if the script went through with the original idea. It’s kind of a jumble, and the sudden ask for pathos with Hawk deciding to self-sacrifice doesn’t hit like it should. There were some nice moments earlier between Hawk and Sara that attempted to set it up, but Hawk isn’t the main character and doesn’t really get the kind of attention he would need for that decision to play out at that emotional level. It falls a bit flat.
The first two-thirds of this film is a light, professional, and often very funny tale of old men getting to show the young ‘uns that they still have the right stuff. The last third is over-serious for this kind of movie and doesn’t have the right amount of support from the rest of the film for its requested pathos.
I really don’t think the ending works at all, but the first two acts are really quite fun.