Sunday, August 6, 2000
If John Glenn can journey into space at age 77, why not Clint Eastwood, 70, Tommy Lee Jones, 53, Donald Sutherland, 66, and James Garner, 72?
Why not, indeed? While the quartet may seem creaky, they do heroic work in "Space Cowboys," directed and produced by Eastwood.
Movies may be a youth market these days, but there's great fun in watching these accomplished pros do what they do best, which is to breathe life, humor and strength into their roles.
The premise, as written by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, is semi-convincing. In the late 1950s, the four were hot-dog test pilots selected to be Team Daedalus, named after the wing-builder of Greek mythology. They were to be the first pioneers in space.
Perhaps because the pilots were such free spirits, the government disbanded Team Daedalus and sent a monkey on their mission. A blander set of astronauts was chosen for the first space flights.
Forty years later, NASA faces a crisis: A Russian satellite is failing and its loss might destroy communications in Russia. A NASA bureaucrat, played by James Cromwell, proposes a desperate solution: Send up Team Daedalus to attempt repair of the satellite.
"Space Cowboys" starts slowly, necessarily so. The four fliers are depicted in their prime, using younger actors in shadowy black-and-white, with the stars' voices. Then they are shown in present-day: Eastwood retired and embittered; Jones a crop-duster and stunt daredevil; Sutherland an engineer of rollercoasters; Garner a rural preacher. Eastwood manages to inject action into the sequences.
Tension builds at NASA, where Eastwood and Cromwell have been enemies since Cromwell pulled the plug on Daedalus 40 years before. The mission director, William Devane, scorns the oldsters, as do the current astronauts. Somehow, the four get through the physical training.
When the revived Team Daedalus blasts off, the real drama begins. If you think Apollo 13 had a problem, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Eastwood directs with a firm hand. The action scenes, partly filmed at the Houston and Orlando space centers with a huge boost from Industrial Light and Magic, are riveting. Director Eastwood doesn't neglect his own performance: His taciturn, skeptical character remains a cinema classic.
The four actors work in perfect harmony: Eastwood the leader; Jones the fearless adventurer; Sutherland the wise, sardonic problem solver; Garner the stabilizing force. Marcia Gay Harden has some moments as a NASA official with a fondness for Jones. But it's a man's movie, and most of the other female characters are limited to watching with concerned looks.