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Space Cowboys

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: James Garner, James Cromwell, Donald Sutherland, Barbara Babcock, Loren Dean, William Devane, Marcia Gay Harden, Rade Serbedzija, Courtney B. Vance

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Movie quiz, readers...How many films have you seen that show senior citizens doing what only young people traditionally do--without poking fun at the old fogeys for doing that? "On Golden Pond" you say? Sorry. While that 1981 film shows Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn romancing though the crochety retired professor Norman Thayer is 80 years old, director Mark Rydell is not above condescending to them because of their years. Nonetheless "On Golden Pond" is a rarity of a Hollywood film in a culture that glorifies the potency, beauty and physical prowess of youth. Any other guess? Send your answers to me at

Here's one that displays four fogeys engaged in the work heretofore assigned exclusively (with the exception of John Glenn) to the younger baby-boomers. The movie is "Space Cowboys" and darned if Clint Eastwood doesn't make good use of Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner's script, which is loaded with self-deprecating humor that overshadows even the less-than-indulgent mood of the officials who are overseeing their space project.

"Space Cowboys" looks almost like two movies in one. The first segment, the part that delves into the character of four older individuals who have been reluctantly chosen to go on a NASA space mission, is the superior two-thirds. Entirely earthbound not only in its physical dimensions but in the down-home humor evoked by the four non-traditional astronauts, this fragment pits four eccentric characters in their sixties against the NASA establishment and in conflict with one another as well. The physical and verbal temper may not have the originality you'd expect of a Woody Allen film, but the talent of the four stars makes up for anything that's less than envelope-pushing waggery.

The story opens in 1958 when the airborne Team Daedalus is retired once NASA is created, and the human beings who expect to be the first astronauts are replaced by simians-- leading to a long period of bad feelings between the team led by Frank Corvin and the official in charge of the project. The principal plot, which takes place in the present day, turns on an emergency situation in outer space, where a satellite allegedly used for communication and which has been designed and borne aloft by a combined U.S.-USSR team during the bad old days of the Cold War is in danger of crashing into the atmosphere. Because the technology is now obsolete, the only people familiar with the satellite's design are Frank (Clint Eastwood), Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and Jerry O'Nell (Donald Sutherland). They would be the obvious people to do the job, except that their combined age is about 250. The age quandary becomes the principal motif of the film.

The laughs in this movie are not of the deep-belly sort and "Space Cowboys" may therefore not appeal to the usual targeted audience of the Hollywood studios. But for the more sophisticated young people and for a large segment of middle-aged and older people, Eastwood's movie is just short of being a gem. The waggery begins straight off as Frank makes the rounds to dig up the buddies he has not seen for four decades, each somewhat reluctant but none about to pass up an opportunity for one final blast in their lives. As they go through the training program, we watch them barely able to match even half of what they'd been able to do when in their thirties, whether the conditioning involves pumping iron, racing about the track, or even in one case the simple reading of an eye chart. (Jerry, who wears coke-bottle glasses, rattles off the entire chart, explaining to his pals that his memory is far better than his eyesight.)

During the second, and less engrossing, one-third of the drama, director Eastwood takes himself and his team--which includes young astronauts Ethan Glance (Loren Dean) and Roger Hines (Courtney B. Vance)--into orbit as the men and women on the ground observe their progress with anxious looks. Marcia Gay Harden performs believably as a thirty- something woman who, during the 30-day training program, seems to have fallen in love with the aging Hawk Hawkins, while James Cromwell does a neat turn as the Bob Gerson-- the sinister high U.S. government official with a secret and hostile agenda--an indelible component of conspiracy movies. Kaufman and Klausner's story includes a captivating twist as we learn something about the satellite that only the vice president and a couple of NASA officials are aware of.

While the second portion of the movie lacks the originality of the opening segments, the special effects are at times dazzling, giving the audience a feeling of the speed of the spacecraft, the vastness of the universe, and the usual designs we're familiar with from watching movies like "Armageddon," "The Right Stuff," and "Mission to Mars."

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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