' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Space Cowboys

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Some Drivel On...Space Cowboys

The worst part of “Space Cowboys” is the beginning. Oh, not so much the 1958-set black & white sequence itself, in which two antagonistic best friends and Air Force pilots, Frank Corvin and Hawk Hawkins, reach the precipice of space in an X-plane before plummeting back to Earth. No, it’s that Eastwood, doubling as director, has chosen to dub the voices of these young actors with his voice and the voice of Tommy Lee Jones since they assume the roles in the present-day scenes. Continuity, schmontinuity (sic); it sounds odd and looks odd and feels odd. Then again in its own weird way, this aesthetic decision epitomizes the movie’s meditation on aging, reminding us that even these young bucks will one day grow up to sound like a coupla gravelly geezers. Eastwood, after all, would have been 70 when “Space Cowboys” was released and he must have seen the screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner as an opportunity to wrestle with getting old on his own terms, a geriatric “Right Stuff” in which the test pilot rogues of yesteryear approach one’s dotage with their determination to get in the ring intact. Indeed, though the retired Eastwood version of Frank Corvin is introduced in something of a “Home Improvement” outtake, struggling with an automatic garage door opener, this also provides an avenue to fooling around with his wife (Barbara Babcock) in the dark. In other words, the old guy’s still got it.

The monochrome prologue concludes with Frank and Hawk and their NASA compatriots Jerry and Tank (Donald Sutherland and James Garner, respectively, in the present-day scenes), having their dreams of going into space denied when bureaucratic boss Bob Gerson (James Cromwell in the present-day scenes) replaces them with monkeys. So, when the elderly Gerson calls on the elderly Frank to see what can be done about a failing guidance system of the latter’s design in an old Soviet communications satellite, on the verge of crashing back to Earth, the retired Frank is gift-wrapped a chance to get even. And that is just what he does, not so much negotiating with Gerson as blackmailing him into allowing his original team, attendant impaired vision and medical issues and all, to blast off into space and fix the satellite. This iconoclastic tendency infuses the standard-issue training scenes at NASA, in which the youthful astronauts show their feathers to this over-the-hill quartet and vice-versa, with a little unexpected juice, going to show how heroism and hotdogging so often go hand-in-hand. 

That is not to suggest the standard-issue training scenes sink. To the contrary, they also get by on the bountiful charms of Eastwood’s co-stars. Sutherland might be playing nothing more than a variation of the horny old coot, but he manages to transcend the stereotype by imbuing it with a poet’s soul, evinced in his well-timed joke in a scene on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Garner gets the least to do but makes it count anyway, like a scene in which he acts as Hawk’s spotter on a bench press, humorously sending up so much macho vainglory. Even Loren Dean succeeds as the younger straight man, his perfect coif and tight-lipped visage serving as the perfect counterpoint to Eastwood’s squint and “put a sock in it, sonny” countenance. No one, though, is better than Jones. 

If the actor has hardened into an unamused meme in the minds of so many, “Space Cowboys” is just one more pleasant reminder of his roaring liveliness, like if Sam Shephard’s Chuck Yeager had morphed into Jones’s Marshal Sam Gerard. Hawk even gets the foremost character complication, a pancreatic cancer reveal midway through, which Jones has Hawk carry with this impeccable kind of bemused dignity, no-big-deal on the surface but letting the fear and sadness peek through too. He also falls in love with NASA engineer Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden), who could have simply been a throwaway character, there to further shine a light on Hawk’s tragic diagnosis. Instead, Gay Harden makes Sara count, taking the scene where her character simply sits and watches the four burgeoning spacemen on The Tonight Show and effuses this contagious joy. The best scene in a movie about going to space might just be the one that is nothing more than Hawk and Sara sit together while gazing upon downtown Houston at night. Drinking beers while perched on the hood of a car evokes the sensation of Being Young Again, true, but their remarkably relaxing romantic chemistry befits two older people who are less insecure and tolerant of romantic b.s. 

If the first half of “Space Cowboys” is more of a comedy, the back half transitions into something more like drama, though Eastwood is careful to end not so much on a note of suspense or even triumph as wonder. The twist, that the communications satellite is no ordinary communications satellite but a nuclear silo in space, might merely have been a way to revive America’s long since dormant Cold War rival as the chief onscreen villain. “Space Cowboys”, though, despite its oft-modest vibe, aims higher, its conclusion spiritually connecting with the unforgettable culmination of Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff.” Granted, Eastwood is not as lyrical a filmmaker as Kaufman and the final scenes of “Space Cowboys” do not reach the figuratively otherworldly heights as Kaufman’s 1983 opus. But Eastwood manages his own kind of functional poetry nonetheless. “The Right Stuff” ended by juxtaposing Chuck Yeager’s individual bravado in the form of an unauthorized test flight with the teamwork of the Mercury astronauts being feted by a massive audience while “Space Cowboys” ends with Hawk strapping himself to the satellite, firing the missiles’ engines, and rocketing away from Earth and into the black of space. He might be taking one for the team to save the whole world, but this valorous act is also portrayed as a wry and wonderful variation of his personalized moonshot, an aging (dying) NASA cowboy going for one last wild ride. 

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