Grumpy Old Astronauts
Space Cowboys is two very good movies. Like Titanic and Deep Impact, the film has a split personality -- can't decide whether it's a romantic fable or a disaster flick -- but it pulls off both pieces with superb acting and excellent visuals, even if viewer credulity gets stretched to the breaking point. This tale of four grumpy old men who become astronaut heroes begins as a farce, but ends up poignant and nostalgic for the era of frequent manned space expeditions.
The gimmick for getting the geezers into space is actually more plausible than the political subplot. When an old Russian communication satellite's orbit begins to decay, NASA calls upon Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), the designer of Skylab, to which the Soviet-created IKON bears an uncanny resemblance. If IKON fails, it could cause a communications blackout in Russia that one general fears could plunge the country toward fragmentation.
Corvin -- who has never forgiven his Air Force commander Bob Gerson for passing over his flight team in the early days of space travel -- demands that Team Daedalus accompany him into space if he is to repair the failing device that no younger astronauts have a clue how to fix. Because of time constraints, NASA agrees, as long as pilot "Hawk" Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), engineer Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland), and navigator Tank Sullivan (James Garner) meet the physical requirements.
Gerson (James Cromwell), now an executive at NASA, isn't happy about this deal. But he doesn't believe the four men will pass the tests. . .and he needs Corvin to train Gerson's hand-picked secret agent, a cocky young astronaut who sends cans of Ensure over to the Daedalus table. Gerson isn't telling anyone -- not even the ground crew -- that IKON harbors a potentially explosive secret known only to his agent. So after NASA cheerfully sends up what it believes will be a PR triumph, the aging flyers must cope with an unfolding crisis of a magnitude they've never imagined.
By the time this emotional thriller has played out, viewers may feel like they've been riding one of the roller coasters designed by O'Neill in his post-Air Force career. As movies with a twist go, this one is masterful. We know from the beginning that Gerson isn't playing on the level, but we're led to believe his only secret is that he may be responsible for Skylab designs having fallen into Soviet hands. By the time we see what's really up, implausible as it is, we're engaged in the unfolding space disaster.
The dramatic irony is powerful as well. "You're not a team player," everyone tells Frank, but it's the NASA exec and his hand-picked young hotshot whose solo missions force Frank and his team to face tragedy. Space Cowboys initially leads the audience to expect another Apollo 13, where astronauts became heroes through hard work and personal sacrifice. Yet these aging characters are already facing their own mortality before they go into space. They know what's at stake for themselves, even before Gerson's deception raises the stakes immeasurably.
Some audience members will be moved by what follows, but others may feel cheated of a happy ending. No one, however, will feel cheated by the production values, which are superb. Filmed with the cooperation of NASA, Space Cowboys features a detailed representation of NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, complete with large-screen high-definition communications imaging. The crew shot at both the Johnson Space Center and at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, filming the actual launch pad and assembly buildings rather than models. They also used real astronaut facilities for the departure sequences.
Both Air Force test flights and space shuttle maneuvers are portrayed with a high degree of realism. Industrial Light and Magic provides magnificent space vistas, and with the exception of one gravity-heavy shuttle sequence that I wouldn't have noticed had another viewer not pointed it out, the astronauts' working environment looks very convincing. There's quite a bit of humor as the older men learn to use newfangled shuttle toilets, throw up in their helmets, and take bets on who will pass out first in a high-gravity simulator. They also pull some spectacular stunts with the flight simulator, which it's easy to guess will be used later on in the movie.
There's a sweet if irrelevant romance between Hawkins and a NASA administrator, while O'Neill is the only man standing proud for the pretty doctor when they're naked for their physicals. Corvin is primarily the straight man among these clowns, wonderfully needled by Hawkins and Sullivan, who have become a barnstorming crop-duster and a Baptist minister respectively since leaving the Air Force.
The four lead actors have wonderful chemistry, making them entirely believable as a gaggle of competitive old friends who can still get into fistfights over unresolved past differences. (The young men who play Corvin, Hawkins, and Sullivan in their Air Force days look and sound just like them.) Hawkins gets the most character development and grows the most during his experiences with NASA, though Corvin is the center of the film's plot.
Unfortunately, when the fast-paced humor of the first hour dissolves abruptly into tense thriller, the audience has been sitting for so long that the film seems to drag. After the big twist, the film becomes somewhat predictable, so the pacing of the slow space maneuvering seems off. Viewers who appreciated Titanic won't have any problem sitting through this much shorter film, but anyone who has seen the sci-fi thriller television previews may be started at how long Space Cowboys takes to become that movie.
Eastwood, who directed the film, appears to have been loath to discard any of the subplots. The black-and-white past-tense opening is very funny, but upon reflection seems out of sync with the more realistic present-day storyline. It does provide humorous sight gags involving props from the old days, however. It's heartening to see older white males, a privileged class both in Hollywood and NASA, as the underdogs, replaced by ethnic minority and female trainees who joke about the old guys' bellies.
The ending of Space Cowboys encapsulates both the heroism and the tragedy of the history of the space program and the Cold War that sparked it. The aging astronauts beat unbelievable odds, but they do so in a way that makes their triumph convincing, and not without high cost. Ultimately this is a feel-good movie, no matter how many genres it crosses on the way.