Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner play the aging exemplars of the right stuff, and a large part of the movie's irresistible charm stems from the no-sweat professionalism of these accomplished old pros as they go for broke while acting their age. (Well, okay, I suppose Jones qualifies as more of a middle-aged pro, but you get the idea.) In our era of obsessive youth-skewing in all areas of popular culture, there's something boldly subversive, if not out-and-out revolutionary, about a cast this demographically challenged.
But what really makes Space Cowboys soar is the gracefully unassuming proficiency that informs Eastwood's work on the other side of the camera. As he emphasizes the hearty camaraderie and resilient dignity of the lead characters, Eastwood often recalls the character-driven, courage-under-fire dramas of the late, great Howard Hawks. And not just in the obvious ways: Yes, there are vibrant echoes of Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks's classic tale of hotshot pilots who cheat death for fun and profit, but the overall tone of Space Cowboys is closer to that of El Dorado, Hawks's wistfully autumnal western, in which John Wayne and Robert Mitchum transcend their advancing decrepitude to fight the good fight one last time.
Eastwood has been a superstar for so long -- at 70, he remains, along with Warren Beatty and Paul Newman, among the very few luminaries of his generation who can still command top dollar and top billing -- that it's easy to underestimate the care and craftsmanship he continues to bring to his acting. (As the boozy, broken-down reporter who got a beat-the-clock shot at redemption in last year's criminally overlooked True Crime, he gave one of the three or four best performances of his career.) But it's even easier to undervalue Eastwood's storytelling skills, to not place him among the last great Hollywood classicists. Sure, he received an Academy Award for his devastatingly demythologizing Unforgiven. But he hasn't gotten nearly the credit he deserves for many of his previous and subsequent directorial efforts.
Maybe Eastwood isn't aggressively flashy enough. Or maybe he simply makes moviemaking look too easy by consistently maintaining faith in his material. He doesn't feel compelled to edit a narrative into incoherent flashes, or to hard-sell emotional crescendos with overbearing orchestrations, or to assemble a sequence in a rapid-fire manner that makes a hash of simple time-and-space logic. Eastwood approaches cinema with the quaintly old-fashioned notion that if he's sufficiently interested in a story to deem it worth the trouble of bringing to the screen, audiences likely will share his enthusiasm, right to the very end of the picture. It's not arrogance that drives him to tell stories for and about reasonably mature adults, at whatever pace he deems necessary. Rather, it's a profound sense of respect -- for his medium and his audience -- that compels him to make our day.
Space Cowboys commands attention from the get-go with an evocative black-and-white prologue set in 1958. Test pilots Frank Corvin, Hawk Hawkins, Jerry O'Neil and Tank Sullivan -- played by young unknowns with amusingly familiar dubbed-in voices -- are members of Team Daedalus, a top-secret unit trained for manned space flight. Unfortunately, Team Daedalus never gets off the ground. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration replaces the U.S. Air Force as the prime mover in outer-atmosphere testing. And the first American to actually go into space is a chimpanzee named Sam.
Flash forward four decades. A huge communications satellite, the joint product of U.S. and Russian scientists, has suffered a systems failure. The bad news is nobody at NASA knows how to fix the thing. The worse news is maybe it's not just a communications satellite after all. And the worst news of all: The satellite, known as Ikon, is five weeks away from crash-landing on Earth.
Frank Corvin (Eastwood), designer of the '60s-era guidance system that controls Ikon, is the only person still alive who knows enough about the "obsolete technology" to be of use to NASA. But Frank refuses to be useful unless -- yes, you guessed it -- he, Hawkins (Jones), O'Neil (Sutherland) and Sullivan (Garner) finally get a chance to blast off into space.
So Team Daedalus is reunited and retrained, though not without serious carping by NASA special projects administrator Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). And not without some creaking, moaning and complaining on the part of the senior-citizen trainees. Throughout the first half of Space Cowboys, Corvin and his crewmates undergo the kind of intense training that might prove too much for men half their ages. But they sail through with flying colors -- and even score a few points for the geezer contingent in their running rivalry with youngbloods prepping for shuttle assignments.
(Here and elsewhere, you may find yourself thinking of John Glenn, the living legend who made three orbits around Earth in 1962, then returned to space in 1998 at age 76. Space Cowboys was written by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner long before Glenn made his return trip to the great beyond. "The funny thing is," Eastwood noted during on-location filming at Johnson Space Center last year, "John Glenn would have been too old for our cast. But not too old to go back into space in real life.")
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).
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.' "