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Movies
'Space Cowboys'

Clint Eastwood leads a cast with the right stuff in 'Space Cowboys'

Friday, August 04, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They're pretty fly for white-haired guys. Well, technically they don't all have white hair, but you get the idea.

 
 
'Space Cowboys'


Rating: PG-13 for some language, brief nudity.

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner

Director: Clint Eastwood

Web Site: www.spacecowboys.net

Critic's Call: 3 stars

   
 

In "Space Cowboys," Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner play retired U.S. Air Force test pilots. They had the right stuff in 1958 when they were part of "Team Daedalus" and training to become the first Americans in space. (Daedalus was the Greek mythological figure who built wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son, Icarus.)

The four were the fearless ones who broke everything from speed and altitude records to a couple of very expensive test planes. Three in 10 months, in fact. That did not make their commanding officer, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), very happy. So, when it came time to send a pioneer into space, Gerson bestowed that honor on a chimp.

Fast-forward to the present, when Gerson is now a NASA bureaucrat who needs retiree Frank Corvin (Eastwood) or at least his knowledge of the now-ancient Skylab. Turns out Frank designed the Skylab guidance system which somehow found its way into a Russian satellite that is about to crash to Earth. The hardware is too big to retrieve and too crucial to let tumble from the sky; that means it must be repaired in space.

When emissaries from NASA tell Frank that his country needs him, he responds in his best Dirty Harry voice, "Put a sock in it, sonny." He has never forgiven Gerson for stealing credit for his work or for scratching the team, but he strikes a deal: He will help if Gerson sends Team Daedalus into space. If John Glenn could do it, they can, too.

Frank starts reuniting the team. Daredevil pilot Hawk (Jones) is now taking paying customers on his own version of the vomit comet while Jerry (Sutherland) is designing roller coasters and Tank (Garner) is a Baptist minister. They and two younger astronauts begin to train for the mission.

Instead of the usual yearlong advance, the team has only a month to prepare. They take a lot of ribbing from their younger, buffer counterparts and even from a barroom waitress. When two of the old-timers ask which one she'd like to take home, she asks if they mean "the home," as in retirement home.

"Space Cowboys," directed and produced by Eastwood, throws a few curves their -- and our -- way before they get to the launch pad and beyond. I'm no rocket scientist, but a couple of the developments and twists seem highly unlikely. At the very least, the science of a climactic maneuver seems questionable, although I suppose we should all remember it's only a movie. And a summer movie, at that.

Compared with the leading men, acting for three to nearly five decades each, the writers are relative neophytes. Howard A. Klausner is making his feature debut here, while co-writer Ken Kaufman's credits include "Muppets from Space," the Pauly Shore comedy "In the Army Now" and an English TV series.

The writers are fine as long as they're on terra firma, taking great advantage of NASA's cooperation. The cast and crew were granted access to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Fla., and that lets us step behind the rope line and get inside the shuttle simulator and the virtual reality room and other training tools. Once the story switches to space, it's Houston, we have a problem, even though Industrial Light & Magic provides superb visual effects.

However, what makes this movie are the four leading men, who take their broadly sketched characters and run with them. They seem to be having fun here and for once, they're playing men roughly their own age or even older (Jones, for instance, will turn 54 in September). The comic and male-bonding moments work better than the sky-is-falling scenario, done and then done again in "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon."

Although Barbara Babcock is given little to do as Frank's wife, the other actresses aren't just arm or eye candy. Marcia Gay Harden is a NASA mission director, and Blair Brown a physician. It's the younger male actors, Loren Dean and Courtney B. Vance, who aren't used to full effect.

If you've spent the summer wondering who Jason Biggs is, or what the X-Men are or what's so funny about "Scary Movie," then this may be your film. And if you can recognize a can of Ensure at 50 paces and get the joke, all the better.



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