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The (Balding) Eagle Has Landed

Clint Eastwood's charming Space Cowboys tosses youth demographics out the cargo bay

Naturally, there are unpleasant surprises in store for the shuttle crew during the extraterrestrial repair mission. And predictably, there are lavish displays of special effects -- many of them engineered by the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic -- when Corvin and company share a close encounter with Ikon.

But the high-tech trickery isn't nearly as important as the human element in this particular equation. While Sutherland and Garner make the absolute most of thinly written roles -- one's a cheerfully horny geezer, the other's a born-again minister -- Jones strikes a delicate balance of cynical swagger and melancholic yearning as his character discovers the second great love of his life (Marcia Gay Harden, well cast as a NASA mission director) on the eve of fulfilling the dream of his lifetime. Eastwood gets most of the best lines, and delivers them with equal measures of steely authority and brittle wit. But he's also extremely generous when it comes to sharing screen time with the other leads. Better still, he also showcases first-rate supporting players such as Cromwell, Harden, William Devane (as a hard-bitten flight director) and Apollo 13 veteran Loren Dean (as a brash young astronaut who doesn't respect his elders).

Old hands: Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones rebel against the forces of gravity - in more ways than one.
Ken Regan
Old hands: Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones rebel against the forces of gravity - in more ways than one.

And speaking of Apollo flights: After hearing a few colleagues question the credibility of the rescue mission in Space Cowboys, I decided to seek an expert's opinion. So I contacted Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean, who offered an enthusiastic thumbs-up to Eastwood's fanciful fantasy fulfillment. "I think I would need at least two years of intensive training," Bean admitted, "to be brought up to speed on the space shuttle. And these characters manage it in a few weeks. But hey, who knows what they could do if there were an emergency? I mean, if Apollo 13 had never happened -- if it were just a drama, instead of a real story -- people might say, 'Aw, that's ridiculous. They couldn't have gotten those guys back to Earth if all those things really happened.' "

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