At least three times in 1998’s Armageddon Bruce Willis and his crew of oil-drillers-cum-astronauts are referred to as "cowboys," and once they are actually called "space cowboys." I can’t help imagining Clint Eastwood staring incredulously at the chaotic, dim-witted proceedings on the screen and muttering to himself, in that famous gravelly voice: "Cowboys? You want space cowboys? I’ll show you space cowboys."
Structurally, the plot of Space Cowboys is almost identical to that of Armageddon. (Spoiler warning.) An emergency outer-space mission utilizing a government-misappropriated technology requires the intimate technical expertise of the man who designed it. The designer agrees to do the job, but only if he can bring his own team. Since he has the government over a barrel, they agree; and soon the nominated team members have signed up, even one (the youngest) who harbors a grudge against the team leader. A training sequence follows as the would-be astronauts are brought up to speed for their mission. There’s a love-interest subplot involving the youngest team member, and some friction with the space program’s regular astronauts. At last our heroes head for the stars, accompanied by a token military character with a covert mission to protect the government’s interests, who of course nearly ruins everything. In the end, through wildly improbable heroics, though not without cost and self-sacrifice, our heroes prevail.
And yet Space Cowboys is nothing like the earlier film. Overblown, overwrought, and overdone, Armageddon was a movie on overdrive, fueled by adrenaline and testosterone, lurching along in fits and starts. Eastwood’s film exudes easy charm and never takes itself too seriously; it runs on a slower-burning but higher-grade fuel: the likability and established audience goodwill of the four aging leads (Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner). Where Armageddon merely strutted, Cowboys swaggers. What’s the difference? Style.
So it’s not exactly a masterpiece. Cheerfully derivative, unassumingly formulaic, Cowboys is content not to blaze any trails, but follows well-worn wagon tracks to a comfortably familiar destination. So what? If you enjoy the company, the trip is a pleasant one. In a year of record studio underachievement that has produced a host of big-budget, big-star disappointments like Battlefield Earth and Mission: Impossible 2, Space Cowboys is a minor gem.
Frank (Eastwood), Hawk (Jones), Jerry (Sutherland), and Tank (Garner) are the aging former members of Team Daedalus, a 1950s team of hot-dog Air Force pilots who pushed the frontiers of the space program, dreaming of becoming the first Americans in space — until the project was unexpectedly taken away from the military and given to NASA civilians, who proceeded to replace Eastwood’s team with a monkey. (The prologue narrates these events in black-and-white footage, and the characters’ lines are dubbed in the stars’ own voices, so you know right away who’s who.)
This betrayal was facilitated by Bob Gerson (played later in life by James Cromwell), a self-aggrandizing superior officer who negotiated himself a fast-track career at NASA out of the deal. Meanwhile, the Daedalus alumni have gone on to generally less glorious futures, each in some way reflecting their first love of speed and space: Frank became a rocket scientist, Hawk continued flying as a charter pilot, Jerry indulged his love of G-forces by designing roller coasters, and Tank reached for the heavens by taking up the cloth as a Baptist minister.
Now, though, NASA bigwig Gerson has a problem, and the only one who can help him is the one man on the planet whose help he least wishes to ask — and is least likely to get. Frank is even less inclined to help when he discovers the reason his help is needed: An early propulsion system design of his has mysteriously wound up on an ancient, enormous Russian communications satellite, whose orbit has begun decaying at a dangerous rate. By now Frank’s design is so archaic as to be arcane, and it’s impenetrable to modern engineers. Political reasons are given for the necessity of saving the satellite, though it’s pretty clear something else is at work here.
Gerson wants Frank to bring NASA scientists up to speed on the old system. Frank offers Gerson an ultimatum: Reassemble Daedalus and send them all into space, and he’ll fix the problem himself. Gerson sputters protests about sending geriatrics into space, but Frank argues that if they can send a 77-year-old John Glenn back up, they can send Daedalus too.
So much for plot. The real pleasures of Space Cowboys don’t have to do with what happens, but with how. These four stars are completely at home in front of the camera, and we feel at home with them. The actors have an easygoing camaraderie with one another that brings their old Air Force history convincingly to life. The film does its best to make the rest of the film convincing as well; thanks in part to active cooperation from NASA, the training and space sequences are far more realistic, if not a whole lot more plausible, than the ludicrous comic-book exploits of Armageddon. The second act, with the wrinkly Daedalus crew struggling to qualify for space duty, provides genuine laughs, and the third act in space is always interesting and sometimes thrilling.
Some of those laughs in the second act come from Jerry, a flamboyantly libidinous old man who takes an active interest in anything female. While his crass behavior may offend some, it doesn’t actually go anywhere and is played for absurdity rather than laciviousness. A romance between a mission director named Sara (Marcia Gay Harden, who’s about 40) and Hawk, who (though portrayed by 55-year-old Tommy Lee Jones) is supposed to be the peer of Eastwood (70) and the others, seemed a bit of a stretch, but I guess if Hawk is a supposed to be a space-program icon, it isn’t out of the question. After all, in real life Eastwood himself is married to a woman half his age (his screen wife in Cowboys is considerably older).
Why does Tank, who’s supposed to be an American Baptist minister with Southern roots, at one point in space utter a snatch of the Hail Mary? Because Hollywood doesn’t know any better. All religion in Movie-Land, whether good, bad, or indifferent, tends to be Catholic. (For the record, Tank’s is basically indifferent. Although a clergyman, he’s basically a regular Joe who to his credit manages to avoid the dangers at both extremes of the Hollywood religious spectrum [hyper-piousness at one end, hypocrisy at the other], only to succumb to the mushy middle; he’s the least developed and utilized character, and his religion is virtually irrelevant.)
This is a fun movie. Those with memories of the early years of the space program will especially enjoy its sense of nostalgia; and the suggestion that it’s never too late to realize an old dream should resonate with almost anyone. Well, maybe not people who really loved Armageddon. They’re bound to find Space Cowboys boring and understimulating. Those who found Armageddon loud, fragmented, and obvious may breathe a sigh of relief now that the real space cowboys have come to town.
Talk about the wrong stuff is one officer’s disparaging comment as Willis’ team struts about NASA ostensibly preparing for their mission, hamming it up like class clowns in high school, ridiculing the process, flaunting their lack of couth like a badge of honor all but letting their butt cracks stick out. Yes, in this film the honors science students are obliged to sit back and watch as the shop class saves the world.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.