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Space Cowboys

Entry updated 23 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (2000). Malpaso Productions/Village Roadshow Pictures/Warner Brothers. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausen. Cast includes John Asher, Eli Craig, James Cromwell, Loren Dean, William Devane, Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Tommy Lee Jones, Matt McColm, Toby Stephens, Donald Sutherland and Billy Worley. 130 minutes. Colour with black and white opening sequence.

1958. Shot in black and white (see Ruins and Futurity). Team Daedalus test pilots Frank Corvin (here Stephens) and reflected "Hawk" Hawkins (here Craig) are nearly killed when Hawkins forces an experimental X-plane to 112,000 feet in a reckless attempt to break the altitude record; but the plane stalls and breaks apart, the ejected pilots almost hitting a B-52 navigated by "Tank" Sullivan (here McColm). After a brief fight on the ground, broken up by team-mate Jerry O'Neill (here Asher), the hated base commander Bob Gerson (here Worley) tells the four to attend a press conference, at which he informs the world that the US Air Force's space flight programme has been transferred to the newly created NASA, where there is no room for cowboys. Dusk falls on an American Dream.

2000. Shot in colour. A NASA team visits Corvin (now Eastwood), now a retired electrical engineer, and tell him that an old "communications" satellite known as IKON – whose Soviet-era guidance system is in fact identical to the system he had designed for the SkyLab Space Station decades ago – is in a rapidly decaying orbit, with only a month to go before it breaks up in atmosphere; but that NASA, seconded for political reasons to give aid to post-Soviet Russia, is unable to direct or repair the mutilated ancient system. Corvin meets Gerson (now Cromwell), now a careerist NASA honcho, and agrees to take on the task of saving the satellite, but only if he is able to work with his old team: Hawk (now Jones), Jerry (now Sutherland) and Tank (now Garner). Gerson has no choice but to agree; the team is duly recruited in a series of joky Samurai routines [for Seven Samurai see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; and the old men begin their (generally authentic) physical training for the necessary space shuttle excursion to IKON. (What might have seemed a cartoonishly self-indulgent storyline for ageing superstars became less implausible during the shooting of Space Cowboys, when retired astronaut John Glenn [1921-    ] returned briefly to space as a Payload Specialist on the shuttle Discovery; at the age of 77 he was much older than the characters in the film.) The four pass the required tests, albeit with difficulty and some cheating.

After learning of his terminal cancer, Hawk enters into an elegiac affair with NASA executive Sara Holland (Harden), continuing with the mission in order to see naked space at last, and perhaps to die there. From about this point the Hollywoodish guy sparring between Corvin and Hawk tapers off, giving the film room to focus on a surprisingly sober and (again) generally authentic portrayal of NASA procedures up to and after a successful launch. Team Daedalus soon reaches IKON, which turns out to be an extremely large, massive, spookily defensive missile platform of Cold War vintage containing, as the Team soon discovers, eight armed nuclear missiles; if IKON begins to break up on re-entry, its defensive programming will treat this as an assault, and the missiles will automatically destroy the eight largest cities of America (see World War Three). Though the guidance system – which had been stolen from Gerson's own files by Russian agents – may be fixable, IKON has suffered too much damage to be returned to a safe orbit. Hawk volunteers to pilot IKON on a one-way trip Moonwards, using the missile rockets for thrust. Corvin agrees; they part; the space shuttle lands safely back on Earth. Dead or alive, Hawk reaches the Moon: the last shot of the film narrows in on a space-suited shape lying against a rock; in its opaque sun visor, a reflection of planet Earth glows in the utter silence. It is a powerful image of Suicide experienced as an epiphany.

The gradual transformation of Space Cowboys from amiable spoof to contemplative action tale may be due to Eastwood's seemingly laid-back but in fact learnedly inconspicuous narrative skills as director. By this point in his career – this was the twenty-second film he had directed – he was able to infuse the silliest plots with a savvy workmanlike gravitas, and if Space Cowboys is in the end perhaps most notable for the pitfalls he dodges, the mature warmth of the enterprise also remains vivid; along with an inherent sadness, a natural sense of nostalgia for the old days when its cast was young. More tellingly, Space Cowboys also conveys a pervasive (if unstated) sense that as of the year 2000 NASA had aged more badly than had Eastwood and his samurai. [JC]


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