Space Cowboys (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Grumpy Old Astronauts

Remember how Baby Boomers used to say, “Never trust anyone over 30”? Well, guess what? Boomers are beginning to find themselves on the shady side of 50 and are starting to reconsider their earlier stance. Brace yourself, youngsters. Space Cowboys is the first in what is sure to be a long series of movies (and other popular entertainments) telling us how youth ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, old age ain’t what it used to be, and that you can’t trust anyone under 60.

The geezernauts of Space Cowboys are older than Boomers, but then, this isn’t quite the blatantly obnoxious anti-youth tirade I guarantee we’ll be seeing in a few years, either. Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood: True Crime, Unforgiven, who also directed) is a former Air Force test pilot who probably hung out with all those right-stuff guys at Edwards AFB back in the 50s. But Frank and his team — Team Daedelus — washed out of the Mercury astronaut program, to their supreme disappointment. More accurately, they were washed out of consideration for the program by their CO, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell: The Green Mile, A Slight Case Of Murder), who just happens to be a honcho at NASA today… a honcho with a honking big problem that only Frank can solve.
Ikon, an aging Russian communications satellite, is falling out of orbit, and fast. In one month it will reenter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up or, more likely, crash somewhere. Its guidance system is one of Frank’s designs, the same one that was used on Skylab. How did Frank’s guidance system get into a Russkie sat in the middle of the Cold War? This bothers Frank a great deal — all will be revealed, of course, eventually. For now, Frank decides to blackmail Gerson into giving Team Daedelus their first and last shot at space: they’ll go up and fix the damn thing, which is too big to be hauled back to Earth for repairs.

Why can’t NASA send some hotshot young astronauts — you know, the guys and gals who train for this stuff for years? Well, here’s the beginning of the youth backlash: None of the young hotshots can figure out Frank’s antiquated design. Not even Ethan Grace (Loren Dean: Mumford, Apollo 13, in a thankless role pulled off with equanimity), who’s got not one but two masters degrees from MIT. The thirtyish Ethan is a little young to be an astronaut — most of the real spacers today seem to be in their 40s and 50s — but if he were older, Frank and his cronies wouldn’t be able to rag on him the way they do. Ethan and hotshot pilot Roger Hines (Courtney B. Vance: The Hunt for Red October) will train alongside Frank and Co. for the thrown-together mission, but there will be animosity all around.

Call this Oldmageddon. Space Cowboys is Armageddon for your dad, the testosterone-drenched misogyny replaced with amiable, old-coot crankiness. The film shuffles along for a good long while, as Frank, the waistband of his pants edging up toward his armpits, marshals Team Daedelus: Tank Sullivan (James Garner), now a preacher; Jerry O’Nell (Donald Sutherland: Instinct, Virus), now a roller-coaster engineer with frightening teeth, a ponytail, and a taste for younger women; and Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones: Double Jeopardy, U.S. Marshals), still a daredevil in his biplane-for-hire business. Hell yes! They’ll go to space with Frank!

Much humor — which your dad will appreciate much more than you will — is milked from deteriorating bodies being poked and prodded by NASA doctors and how Team Daedelus can’t reminisce about the good ol’ days without someone turning up dead. But, gosh darn it, these codgers still have what it takes to pass a rigorous NASA physical, endure some rough training, and get their asses into space, even if they — and, in particular, Frank — have to break some rules and tick some important people off.

The sentiments are fairly universal, and ones I sympathize with — sometimes the best way to get stuff done is to buck the system, there’s no reason to write anyone off merely for being of a certain age, and streetsmarts are sometimes better than booksmarts. But its the attitude with which Space Cowboys deals out those sentiments that is the harbinger of things to come. Ethan is dismissed by Team Daedelus as, variously, “a brown nose and a snot,” an “MIT weenie,” and (my favorite Ethan insult) “Johnny Quest.” Poor Roger has nothing to do but get conked on the head when his skills should be coming into play — allowing the old guys to prove their mettle and their utter lack of need for the children. Xer NASA official Sarah (Marcia Gay Harden: Meet Joe Black, looking disconcertingly like a Romulan here) reveals to Hawk that she dropped out of the astronaut program because she “knew” she wouldn’t make it, while Hawk and his friends, who theoretically shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, are defying odds left, right, and center. The oldsters do what their juniors can’t or won’t — rebellion is all well and good, but when did the elderly become the daring rebels and the youngsters the timid, entrenched opposition? Watch as the new shuttle on which Frank and Co. ride to space quietly has its name changed from Horizon to Daedelus — from looking forward to looking back.

Going to the movies over the next ten years is gonna be like watching one long Centrum Silver commercial. Space Cowboys is only the beginning. Our parents will love it. We’re gonna get tired of it really quickly.

[reader comments on this review]

share and enjoy