Warner Bros. // 2000 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // July 31st, 2001
Space will never be the same.
Space Cowboys puts a senior citizen spin on the familiar "oddball team takes on an impossible mission" story, creating a film that entertains even as it slips in a few meditative moments on the meaning of growing older. Warner submits a high quality technical presentation and a light collection of extra content.
As Team Daedalus in 1958, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) and "Hawk" Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones) were the boldest and the best test pilots the Air Force had, with Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland) and Tank Sullivan (James Garner) as their equally insane support crew. Aimed at outer space, these heroes are pushed aside by their boss, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell), in favor of the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and an astronaut corps less likely to annoy their superiors. Forty long years later, an obsolete yet vitally important Russian satellite malfunctions, heading for a meteoric death as its orbit decays.
The satellite's technology is so old, none of NASA's wünderkind can conceive of a solution. Begrudgingly, NASA big-cheese Bob Gerson calls upon Frank Corvin, who designed the control system used in the satellite. Frank is none too happy to reunite with his old nemesis, but forces Gerson to allow the far-flung members Team Daedalus to reunite for a final, first mission to outer space. Hard work, subterfuge, and tragedy bring the team through a vastly accelerated mission training, but it is when they reach space that a hydra of deadly serious problems sprouts forth. Faced with a catastrophic secret unearthed from history, Team Daedalus must fight and sacrifice to win the day, and for one final time, earn the thanks of a grateful nation.
Clint Eastwood has long been a legendary Hollywood icon. Though only relatively recently has he added Oscar to his resume (in 1993 winning Best Director and Best Picture for Unforgiven), it was Eastwood's record of significant contribution to his filmmaking craft that won him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (from those same Oscar folks), which is given to "creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."
In the course of that notable career, Eastwood has never been interested in purely heroic, knight in shining armor heroes. Eschewing the easier, more commercially viable route to stardom, he chose to portray real men with textured personalities, whose strength of character and noble qualities co-existed in sharp contrast with disconcerting flaws and failures. What remains an intriguing facet of three of Eastwood's recent films is his exploration of how such flawed characters come to terms with the slow march of time, as he no doubt has in his own life, his young 71 years notwithstanding. Unforgiven deals with a man who late in life is both driven and haunted by his past, while Absolute Power touches upon a man who seeks to repair the damage to his daughter caused by a lifetime of neglect. Now, in Space Cowboys, he muses upon life-long friendship, the tragedy of loss and perseverance despite the physical limitations of age.
As I noted in my Opening Statement, the story of Space Cowboys is not terribly original, though it does make points for giving the impossibly odd-ball team a common bond of friendship as well as significant life experience. Since Team Daedalus once worked as a well oiled though somewhat dysfunctional family, our suspense comes not from whether they will work together, but whether they still have the unshakeable will to succeed, ravages of time be damned. As the absolute center of Space Cowboys, these four actors, Clint Eastwood (The Bridges of Madison County, A Perfect World, The Gauntlet), Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Fugitive, J.F.K.), Donald Sutherland (Outbreak, Six Degrees of Separation, Backdraft) and James Garner (My Fellow Americans, Support Your Local Gunfighter, "The Rockford Files"), shoulder the acting burden with aplomb. If they aren't on their game, then Space Cowboys falls flat, no matter how good any supporting actors are.
Fear not, for they are as good as their reputations and resumes might suggest. Though a bit too relaxed at times to be totally flawless, they are having fun, so we have fun. Everyone wins. Among the rest of the cast, Marcia Gay Harden (who won Best Supporting Actress for Pollock) is a warmly sympathetic Sara Holland, but it is William Devane ("Knots Landing," Payback) who stands out as gruff, iron-willed flight director Eugene Davis. Stealing every scene he's in, I never failed to smile at his no-nonsense style. James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential, Babe, Revenge of the Nerds) has his role as a hardheaded, devious administrator down pat, and he does it so well.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite good, though not quite the best that modern releases have to offer. An occasional splash of edge enhancement is somewhat distracting, but the moderate softness of the transfer is much more significant a drawback. For those not of a picky frame of mind, these points are still secondary to the overall quality of the transfer. Rich, saturated hues, a virtually pristine print, and deep blacks make the many breathtaking space and launch scenes a visual feast.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is suitably kick-ass. Clear dialogue, smoothly panning effects across the main channels and between front and rear channels, and a thumping subwoofer channel all keep one's ears well pleased. I might have wished for the dialogue to be mixed a bit louder into the track, but that is more personal taste than a significant criticism.
Extra content is sparse, but then again Warner has rarely been enthusiastic about including extra content for its discs. In any event, four short featurettes are the center of the extras. The seven-minute "Up Close with the Editor" allows editor Joel Cox (who has been editing Eastwood films ever since The Enforcer) a chance to explain the decision making process of an editor, with specific reference to Space Cowboys. The 11-minute "Tonight On Leno" isn't really a featurette, but an entire segment filmed between Leno and Team Daedalus, including a monologue and some comments from Leno, of which portions were used in the actual film. The seven-minute "The Effects" visits with Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Owens (The Witches of Eastwick, 101 Dalmatians) and briefly touches upon some of the challenges posed by this effects-heavy film. The 28-minute "Back at the Ranch" is a more typical behind-the-scenes featurette and the only place you will get any insight from the oft-reticent actor/director/producer/composer Clint Eastwood. It's all okay, but I'd throw it all out if I could get an extended featurette or documentary, or even (dream! dream!) an Eastwood commentary track. The theatrical trailer for Space Cowboys and filmographies for the cast and crew complete the main content.
The DVD-ROM content amounts to mostly links to various Warner sites, including the main Space Cowboys site, as well as a link to a mildly cheesy game and five trailers for Warner films (Contact, Forbidden Planet, Mars Attacks!, The Right Stuff, and Space Cowboys).
For some, the number of scientific errors (perhaps creative liberties would be a more charitable description?) may test their ability to maintain a suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy Space Cowboys as entertainment. As a more relaxed viewer interested in drama and acting over pure accuracy, I think none are so egregious to warrant criticism. Sure, sound may not travel in a vacuum, but silent space scenes are a mood killer (unless you happen to be Stanley Kubrick).
The only serious quibbles I have with Space Cowboys lie in the script by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner. The Cold War-espionage angle between Bob Gerson and Russian Gen. Vostow is little more than a klunky plot-device that could very well have been excised without loss. Worthier of criticism is the forced love affair between "Hawk" and Sara Holland, which seemed to come out of nowhere and exist solely to inflate the emotional stakes of Team Daedalus' shuttle mission. It could have been worse, I suppose. The medical screening scene, with a century of wrinkled bottoms on display, could have been far surpassed by a love scene showing far more wrinkled bits and pieces than anyone without a geriatric fetish would want.
Rich with acting talent and a moving tale of seasoned adventurers, Space Cowboys is also a treat for the eyes and the ears once it gets into orbit. Though some may find it a bit slow to get going, when it is warmed up, Space Cowboys should prove to be a general crowd pleaser and a good rental choice. Ownership comes at an average price ($26.98 retail), and is of strongest interest to Eastwood aficionados, though anyone could put this film on their shelf without worry.
All concerned are free to go, though the Court wishes Warner would put a little more production value into its discs.
Review content copyright © 2001 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Four Featurettes
* Cast/Crew Filmographies
* DVD-ROM "Added Payload"
* Theatrical Trailer
* NASA Homepage