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Space Cowboys Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006

Image When the script by writers Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner first started making the rounds in Hollywood, Senator John Glenn hadn’t made his historic return to space. “Space Cowboys” met with interest but for a while, inevitable rejection. Warner Bros. bought the script all the same.

Then Senator John Glenn was approached about a return to space, accepted, and was strapped into the space shuttle. A history maker remade history once again, becoming the oldest man (at age 77) to go to space.

“Space Cowboys” suddenly had an even greater following and push to get to the big screen. Clint Eastwood was selected to direct the film and star as Frank Corvin, an engineering designer whose knowledge becomes a pivotal piece in the plot that unfolds.

Eastwood has been in front of the camera for over five decades, but he’s truly come into his own while behind it. Over the past few films I (and a lot of other people) have developed a huge amount of respect for him. Eastwood tends to surround himself with people he knows can do the job, gets the shot nearly always on the first take, and brings a picture in under budget and early. Either of the two are enough to earn him studio support. To top it off, several actors and actresses he’s directed have gone on to get nominated for various acting awards, and sometimes win them. His pictures have won Oscars. “Space Cowboys”, Eastwood’s twenty-second film as director and forty-second that he starred in, isn’t an award contender, but it is a wonderfully fun film, which is one of Eastwood’s primary directives when assuming the helm. He united a great cast and film crew, then told a solid story with humor, thrills, and honest friendship.

Video Presentation: The Blu-ray high-def presentation of the disc is well done. The colors are vibrant and the images are sharp. The black-and-white sequences in the beginning are a nice set-up to show the difference between the past and the present. There was a time when photographers shot in black-and-white because they captured a sharper image. This is one of the films out there to show that isn’t true any more. The sharpness maintains in the color section of the film as well.

Audio Presentation: I was really let down by the sound presentation. As an owner of a surround sound system and this being a fairly recent film, I expected to be blown away by the sounds in a space center. Instead, there was the occasional nod to sound separation, and surprisingly little activity from the subwoofer. The audio portion of the film is definitely anti-climatic. Thankfully the film’s intrinsic integrity and Eastwood’s pacing keeps the story intriguing.

At the beginning of the film, we pick up the movie’s four main protagonists, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Tank Sullivan (James Garner), and Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland). The sequence is in black-and-white and depicts the severe countryside where the first US rockets were tested. One of the best decisions made during this part of the film was to use the voices of the principal actors for those playing their younger selves. It makes it much easier to distinguish who is who and what capacity they served in the film. All four main actors have such memorable voices that the effect works well.

The action sequence involving the experimental plane gets the watcher up to speed immediately on what is involved. These men are risking their lives on an almost daily basis, pushing themselves and their hardware to the limit—and beyond. It really helps to have watched “The Right Stuff” before this film, although it chronologically took place—more or less—after this opening sequence. The feel of the danger is palpable, and when things go wrong, they go wrong in a hurry.

Corvin and Hawkins end up arguing about whether they should continue the flight or press on. This ongoing argument is one of the fundamental ideas that drives both characters and plot. It’s subtle, to a degree, and you can’t help but see the friendship and respect they have for each other despite the conflict. At the controls, Hawkins elects to continue, pointing out the moon and telling Corvin that they’re going there one day. Then the plane flames out and goes into a tailspin. Unable to recover, Corvin and Hawkins bail out, setting new records for parachute jumping.

In no time flat, because Eastwood moves gracefully yet forcefully through his stories, the two men are called up on the carpet in front of their commanding officer, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell, long a favorite political bad guy in many films). That day, Team Daedalus (the group that includes our four heroes) is disbanded and replaced by NASA—and chimpanzee astronauts. The sequencing is like a stiff right hook to the body because the way the guys got treated really stinks. And there’s not a thing they can do about it.

From there the story flashes forward to NASA where Gerson is matched up with Dr. Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden). Gerson works on the political side of the program while Sara delivers on the scientific side. The problem they’re facing is that one of the Russian communications satellites in outer space now has a decaying orbit and is going to crash into the earth. None of the astronauts currently available for the mission are up on the computer language and architecture used on the satellite. A quick check reveals that the designer was Corvin.

Corvin gets introduced in a nice bit with his wife, Barbara (Barbara Babcock). He’s putting in a garage door opener and ends up trapped in the dark with his wife. Until the arrival of Dr. Sara Holland and the problem with the satellite.

Back at NASA, Corvin quickly coerces Gerson into bringing Team Daedalus on board. The road trip Corvin goes on to gather his team members is almost obligatory, but it’s just done so well you just rock along with it. Jones, Garner, and Sutherland are all leading men that are simple joys to watch, and the roles they signed on for the movie really seems to fit them.

Tank is now a minister. O’Neill builds roller coaster rides. And Hawk still runs a maverick pilot service with a restored bi-plane. The dialogue exchanged between them feels real, something old friends would say and do, and the excitement they have for getting back into the saddle comes across as legitimate. Part of that feeling had to have been real. For all four actors to gather and play together had to have been a hoot. Donald Sutherland, in the documentary, voiced the opinion that leaving the movie after it was finished was one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

The fun continues as the four old guys have to qualify for the physical side of the mission. The conversations, competitions, and human frailty bring the viewers into the lives of our heroes. The guest spot they do with John Leno is hilarious, and probably what earned the film its “strongly suggested” PG-13 rating.

Even though these segments are character-building and would generally be slow, Eastwood’s direction plows through them, making them work and keeping them lean. Hawkins’ romance with Dr. Holland is essentially a set piece done in one segment of the film, yet it’s powerful enough to leave a mark without overshadowing the story. It’s almost a cameo, a play within a play, but so well done it fits nicely into the overall structure.

Despite Gerson’s attempt at a double-cross and a medical setback for one of the team members, Team Daedelus blasts into outer space. When they reach the satellite, the tone of the movie changes, becoming more dangerous and edgy. The shift would have been more jarring if the medical setback hadn’t occurred to remind viewers that this was going to be a life-or-death situation from the onset.

Two of the younger astronauts accompany the team. Ethan Glance (Loren Dean) causes problems by attempting to perform the mission even though Corvin chooses not to proceed without more information. Roger Hines (Courtney B. Vance), the other back-up astronaut, is a more sympathetic character, but he still doesn’t carry much weight. The bulk of the show definitely rests on the shoulders of the old guys. (Jones is actually 9 years younger than Sutherland and 18 years younger than Garner.)

The CGI and special effects are discussed a lot in the documentaries on the disc. The movie looks entirely smooth, and it’s hard to believe that filming of actual actors and sets gives way to computer graphics at any point. Space actually looks like space, and the hardware all seems way too real. The transitions between real and actual to imaginary are seamless. (However, the film dodges realism by including sound in the space exteriors.)

Although the special features on the disc are somewhat limited, they are compelling. Most of this material consists of pats on the back for Eastwood, but after seeing the movie and hearing the stories of how he conducted himself, I feel it’s entirely warranted. The really cool thing about listening to Garner, Jones, Sutherland, and Eastwood sitting around talking is the fact that it seems you could really be there with them, just hanging while they laugh and reminisce. Even though the documentary is a presentation, it comes across as appealingly honest.

“Space Cowboys” is a good movie for guys, adults and teens, and probably solid enough to entertain women as well. After all, these guys are all leading men who have played romantic leads at one time or another. Watching this kind of starpower is mesmerizing. It would have been nice if the sound had been up to par, but the experience was still a good one.

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