This article appeared in Issue 21 ofFrontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
With a script inspired by John Glenn's historic return to space in 1998, "Space Cowboys" makes for a nice, unexpected surprise from Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood, who is better known for his earth-bound dramas. In his latest offering, Eastwood ventures into space for the first time with an entertaining and technically meticulous drama that is more science fact than science fiction. In light of recent duds such as "Mission to Mars" and "Battlefield Earth", it is refreshing to see a sci-fi film that actually cares more about the elements of character and story than trying to dazzle the audience with mindless special effects.
The story begins in 1958, when the Air Force, and not the as-yet-unheard-of National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was in charge of space exploration. Frank Corvin, Hawk Hawkins, Jerry O'Neill, and Tank Sullivan are the top four pilots of the Air Force space program, code-named Team Daedalus, and they are poised to become the first few Americans in space. Unfortunately, their underhanded boss Bob Gerson has other ideas in mind when he publicly announces the chartering of NASA and the disbanding of Team Daedalus, literally making a monkey out of the four hot-shot pilots during a press conference. With their hopes of reaching space dashed, the members of Team Daedalus scatter to the four winds, never to see each other again...
... until forty-two years later, when NASA is faced with trying to restore the decaying orbit of a Russian communication satellite named Ikon, which is scheduled to crash to Earth within a month. Unfortunately, the consequences of such an event could be catastrophic, possibly resulting in the complete failure of the Russian Federation's communications infrastructure, and perhaps even civil war. Interestingly enough, Ikon's on-board guidance system, the key to restoring the wayward satellite's orbit, is identical to that of the late Skylab, which was designed by none other than Frank Corvin (Eastwood), who has now long-retired.
Unfortunately, the people who would know anything about how to fix the antiquated system have been long dead. This presents a problem for NASA program official Gerson (James Cromwell of "The Green Mile"), who is in charge of the repair mission and now must seek the help of the hot-shot Air Force pilot that he butted heads with so many years ago. As expected, Frank is not too pleased that his guidance system somehow ended up on a Russian satellite and that Gerson is the one asking for his help. However, after some thought, Frank goes back to his former boss with a counter-offer-- he'll fix the satellite for them, as long as the original Team Daedalus get to go with him.
Gerson reluctantly accepts Frank's demand, which he considers tantamount to blackmail, but adds two conditions of his own. In addition to Frank bringing along two astronauts as backup, Ethan Glance (Loren Dean of "Enemy of the State") and Roger Hines (Courtney B. Vance of "The Last Supper"), if any member of Team Daedalus fails to pass the physical requirements, then the whole group gets grounded.
Frank accepts Gerson's counter-proposal and pretty soon, he is rounding up his old Air Force buddies for the mission. He finds Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones of "Rules of Engagement") offering joyrides in his twin-seat biplane, Jerry (Donald Sutherland of "Instinct") building rollercoasters, and Tank (James Garner of TV's "Rockford Files" fame) delivering sermons as a Baptist preacher. Despite their divergent careers and lifestyles, they drop everything to go along with Frank's hare-brained scheme, on the faint hope of fulfilling their life-long dreams of making it into space.
For anyone who has seen "Armageddon", what happens next should be of no surprise. Arriving at the Houston Space Center, the four 'old fogeys' finagle their way through a series of rigorous physical exams, learn how to operate the systems on the space shuttle, and become objects of ridicule by the 'real' astronauts and ultra-skeptical flight director Eugene Davis (William Devane, seen recently in "Hollow Man"). Meanwhile, grudge-bearing Gerson is doing everything in his power to make sure that Frank and his pals get grounded before their thirty days are up.
Though there are some major surprises in store for the audience (particularly in the final act), most of "Space Cowboys" is fairly predictable, and there is little doubt that Team Daedalus will get into space and be the only ones who can save the mission. The Ken Kaufman ("Muppets from Space") and Howard Klausner-penned script stays pretty close to the generic conventions that you would expect in this type of story, which is a cross between "Armageddon" and "Apollo 13". Thankfully, "Space Cowboys" makes up for an otherwise pedestrian plot by excelling in two areas: the four leads and faithfulness in simulating an actual shuttle mission.
As Team Daedalus, the four leads certainly have 'the ripe stuff' as the likable heroes of the film, and it is hard to imagine "Space Cowboys" with anyone else in their roles. Eastwood manages to have fun with his tough-guy on-screen persona, while still being credible as the story's chief protagonist. Jones plays up to audience expectations as the 'loose cannon' of the group while sharing a credible chemistry with Marcia Gay Harden ("Meet Joe Black"), who plays the mission director in charge of getting Team Daedalus up to speed. Finally, Sutherland gets some of the best lines in the film as he plays the group's incorrigible ladies' man, while Garner is appealing as the calm yet perceptive member of the group.
Eastwood also expended quite a bit of effort to make "Space Cowboys" as realistic as possible, which was certainly helped by NASA's full participation in the making of the film (which included shooting actual footage of a space shuttle launch). Unlike "Armageddon", the technology employed in "Space Cowboys" falls within the constraints of what is available today, and the crisis in the film's third act could be considered plausible in the context of American-Soviet relations over the past few decades. The solution to the third-act crisis, while certainly a stretch, is certainly not beyond the realm of what's possible today. Thus, labeling "Space Cowboys" as science fiction might be a misnomer, since there is little speculation going on here-- other than the leap of faith that four out-of-shape senior citizens could qualify for space travel within a month, a task that usually requires two-years of intensive training.
"Space Cowboys" is probably Clint Eastwood's best film in years (at least since "Unforgiven"), especially in light of some of his more recent disappointments ("True Crime" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" come to mind). Despite the fact that some parts of the story may seem like déja vu, with its decent blend of humor, thrills, special effects, and melodrama, "Space Cowboys" is a sure bet for a great time at the local theater.