Space Cowboys
review by Gregory Avery, 4 August 2000

There are two places where Clint Eastwood's new picture, Space Cowboys, flares into life. The second is a breathtaking thirty-minute sequence in which an orbiting device slowly, and inexorably, begins to spiral apart, and the men who are in, and outside, the U.S. space shuttle that is docked beside it can only watch and prepare themselves for whatever is coming towards them, where it is going to hit them and when. The sequence is choreographed so that you can practically feel the slams and jolts before they happen.

The first occurs when Eastwood's character, Frank Corvin, confronts Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), an old nemesis from the days when Corvin tested jet aircraft in the desert, and who is now a NASA official. Corvin has managed to maneuver things so that he and the three other men from his test pilot days, the Project Daedalus team, can go up into space and repair an old Soviet-era satellite that, somehow, has some of Corvin's old circuitry design built into it and cannot be fixed from the ground. This way, Corvin and his three aging colleagues will finally get a chance to soar into space, something that was snatched away from them back in the Fifties. (The film recreates a scene described in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, when officials held a press conference to announce that the first American in space would be non-human.) But when news of the mission is leaked to the press, Corvin becomes fiercely indignant. He figures this is part of a plan that Gerson had in mind all along, one where he'll replace the old crew members at the last minute with younger astronauts of his own. Gerson replies that it's quite the opposite: Now he has to send the Daedalus team into space, because the news stories about them have created a whole new wave of interest in the N.A.S.A. program along with, most important of all, increased funding from the government. Eastwood gives Corvin an incredibly intense, but silent, look of outrage and indignation. Not only have he and the three other men been reduced to publicity gimmicks, they've become shills.

There's a particular moment in Eastwood's films where the main character is confronted with having to choose which path is the most honorable to take. But what other purpose would Corvin have to fly into space other than to show the young whippersnappers how it's done? The hands-on approach would seem sensible thirty or forty years ago, but with modern technology and communications, he could easily stay on the ground and talk a another, strapping young astronaut through the procedure and watch him do so all at the same time.

Corvin's motives aren't really explored in full, and they're part of the reason why Space Cowboys turns out to be Eastwood's weakest film in years, something of a surprise, since, as a director, Eastwood has consistently shown that he's a genuine craftsman, and even with a running time of just over two hours there isn't a wasted frame in this film, right up to the exact point at which the very last shot of the film cuts to black. (Eastwood is again working with longtime colleagues, cinematographer Jack N. Green, editor Joel Cox, production designer Henry Bumstead, and composer Lennie Niehaus.)

But the story, from an original screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, is awfully patchy, and the characters are barely sketched in. Corvin and Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones) are still quibbling over who's really to blame for smashing up that million-dollar piece of aircraft back in 1958, and they even go out into a parking lot outside a tavern to brawl it out. (Fortunately, the film doesn't turn into Fight Club redux.) Corvin himself is reprimanded distinctly, on three separate occasions, for "not being a team player," but by the look of things it's obvious that Hawk, with his open contempt and uppityness, who is the least cooperative. Donald Sutherland, as Jerry, is an aging swinger who flirts with both pretty young things and with a doctor (the scintillating Blair Brown) who's more towards his age. Sutherland keeps breaking into a wolfish grin and looks handsome in a pair of shimmering dark, wraparound sunglasses. He's still got more to work with than James Garner, whose character, Tank Sullivan, has drifted into becoming a Baptist minister in an Oklahoma church. Garner brings a wonderful sense of slight befuddlement to his opening scenes, like someone who has wandered into the wrong party but starts mingling with the guests, anyway. But he's tremendously underused, and why put actors like Garner and Sutherland in parts like this if you're not going to tap into their tremendous source of talent?

The film as a whole feels a little underdeveloped. Eastwood's scenes with Barbara Babcock, as the wife Corvin has comfortably settled down with, promise some interesting chemistry that never materializes. And it's easy to almost totally forget that Marcia Gay Harden is in the picture when you're recalling it, later, even though she has one of the main roles. (To be truthful, Eastwood has always had a little trouble handling the female characters in his films.) I credit Eastwood for not being afraid to broaden his work and try something a little risky and out of the ordinary -- some of his best films fall right into this category -- but here he seems a bit lost in the cosmos.

Directed by:
Clint Eastwood

Starring:
Clint Eastwood
Tommy Lee Jones
Donald Sutherland
James Garner
Marcia Gay Harden
Courtney B. Vance
Loren Dean
Barbara Babcock
Blair Brown
William Devane
James Cromwell

Written by:
Ken Kaufman
Howard Klausner

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