Even diehard Clint Eastwood fans must have wondered, a little sceptically, about his decision to direct and star in Space Cowboys.
After a string of films that have variously divided or disappointed his devotees – The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Absolute Power (1997), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) and True Crime (1999) – Eastwood weighs in with a feel-good project about four old guys in space.
On the surface, it is unlike anything Eastwood has tackled before – in a genre (science fiction) foreign to him, with a much larger budget than usual and complex, extensive special effects.
The fans need not have worried. Space Cowboys is a superb movie, and a triumphant highlight of Eastwood's late career. Some of the exterior trappings may be new, but the humour, insight, craftsmanship and deep emotion remain intact.
The film begins with a glimpse of our heroes as young, hotshot pilots (to preserve continuity, Eastwood adopts a simple but effective procedure: he has his cast as they are today dub the voices of their younger selves). Frank (Eastwood), Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry (Donald Sutherland) and Tank (James Garner) fall foul of their grumpy superior, Bob (James Cromwell) – and are instantly turfed from NASA's burgeoning space program.
Forty years later, NASA calls upon the retired Frank when a guidance system he once designed is found to be still operative within a Russian satellite that resists being brought under control. Like Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954), Space Cowboys then meanders through a pleasurable recruitment phase, as Frank tracks down his old comrades, one by one, and persuades them to join him on this last, glorious mission.
There is a faint air of absurdity that hovers over most plot moves in this story (scripted by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner). But who cares if, in the real world, this gang of geezers would never be allowed near a spaceship? The charm of the film is so immense (especially in the acting department), and its anti-authoritarian comedy so infectious, that audience resistance is quickly overcome.
As the most classical of contemporary filmmakers, Eastwood's style is so understated and seamless that it risks going unnoticed. There are no flashy shots, blazing montages or pummelling sound effects in Space Cowboys. But Eastwood always finds and shapes exactly the right intersection of a setting, an actor's gesture and the regard adopted by the camera. His style is respectful of characters and their environments; at heart, he is a contemplative director.
This film has a larger canvas than is typical for an Eastwood project. In the spread of interwoven plots and sub-plots, some threads are perhaps a little short-changed: Tank's vocation as a preacher, for instance; or the tender, tentative relationship that blooms between Hawk and a NASA scientist, Sara (Marcia Gay Harden). What works successfully, however, far outweighs what does not.
The TV ads for Space Cowboys make it seem purely like a light-hearted comedy about these scurrilous old guys training for a trip into space. For a change, the promotion wisely keeps silent about virtually the entire second half of the story, which rests upon the dual revelation of an enormous, global issue and a small, intimate one.
These two events finally merge, leading to an ending that is at once the most moving and most mysterious moment in Eastwood's career as a master filmmaker.
Eastwood has often made searching, disturbing films about men and their violent, guilt-ridden problems, such as Tightrope (1984), Bird (1988), A Perfect World (1993) and, supremely, Unforgiven (1992). It is through these movies that, on the whole, he has found favour with critics – as a filmmaker who subverts, or at least questions, the values and forms of the action, cop and Western genres.
Space Cowboys, however, draws together other strands from the director's rich and prolific career. Its laid-back humour recalls the comedies Bronco Billy (1980) and Every Which Way But Loose (1978) – complete with a cameo from a grinning chimpanzee. This is the side of Eastwood that enjoys fight scenes in bars and gentle jokes about men's sexual vanity.
The sadder and more serious part of Space Cowboys returns us to the expansive male-weepie element that occasionally surfaces in Eastwood's work – especially in one of his best and least known films, Honkytonk Man (1982). In this mode, Eastwood turns his back on the modish desire to castigate masculine identity. Instead, he takes a wistful, lyrical, lightly melancholic approach akin to the Country’n’Western songs he admires so much.
It is on
this terrain that Eastwood meets the ghosts of old
Ultimately, behind every joke about slow reflexes, poor eyesight, stiff backs and the waning of libido looms the spectre of mortality.
© Adrian Martin October 2000