They were on the best track to become astronauts, but in 1958 Team Daedalus got short-changed when NASA was founded and the four Air Force hot shots were replaced by a chimp who got to go to space first. Forty years later, NASA encounters a huge problem when radio contact to a Russian communication satellite breaks off and threatens to crash into the atmosphere. Nobody knows how to fix the guidance system of the technical dinosaur - except Team Daedalus member Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), who designed it and is now brought back from retirement. Reluctantly he agrees to help them, but when it turns out that the satellite can only repaired in orbit, he works hard to convince his old boss and now NASA project leader Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) to send him and his old buddies Jerry (Donald Sutherland), Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones) and Tank (James Garner) finally into space...
As one of the few american actors who was also able to establish himself as a director, Clint Eastwood had taken a long and leisurely walk through film history since the early 1970s - from drama to western over action, thriller and musical biography he had almost tried everything and succeeded in most. When in the late 1990s a new wave of science fiction and space movies arrived, not even Clint Eastwood was able to resist it - but his spaceflight adventure was no ordinary mainstream science-fiction spectacle.
Space Cowboys had originally been an idea of producer Andrew Lazar that sent a group of retirement-aged astronauts to space, long before John Glenn's 1998 Space Shuttle flight at the age of 77. Lazar had commissioned the writing team of Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner to write a script based on his idea, but it was at first completely ignored by all studios. It was perceived as unbelievable and science fiction movies were generally not very popular at the time. But when Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay had stormed the box office with their space spectacle Armageddon, other studios began to wake up.
In the end, it was Warner Bros. who won the bidding war for Space Cowboys - the studio which had already made the highly successful adaptation of Carl Sagan's Contact in 1998. But even they were still unsure about the concept, which they saw as unrealistic - until John Glenn flew in space on a Space Shuttle mission without problems in 1998 and became the oldest human in space at the time. Suddenly the idea of Space Cowboys, as the script was named right from the beginning, seemed like a good idea again and the studio greenlit the production, allowing Andrew Lazar to begin the search for a director.
One of the many filmmakers who was offered the script was Clint Eastwood, but in the beginning he was not at all convinced of the idea and he too had doubts about the believability of the story. He also felt uneasy about the scope of the project and its heavy reliance on special effects, but in the end he got to like the characters so much that he chose to direct the movie. But Eastwood attached two conditions to his acceptance: he did not only want to direct the picture, but also wanted to co-produce it and play one of the four main characters. His reputation as an experienced actor and filmmaker laid any of the doubts producer Andrew Lazar and Warner Bros. still had to rest.
With such a famous director on board, the movie suddenly got very interesting for the studio, who granted a generous budget of 65 million dollars. One of the first steps Clint Eastwood took was to find out if the necessary visual effects were possible in the first place. He asked someone who had nearly a quarter of a century experience in that particular field: George Lucas, who at that time was still closely associated with his company Industrial Lights and Magic. The two filmmakers began to think about the development of the special and visual effects and Clint Eastwood finally decided to assign ILM to Space Cowboys, which would need a lot of effects shots.
Special effects would be necessary to make the movie as realistic as possible, but Eastwood was also wary of making Space Cowboys an effects spectacle - what he really wanted to do is to tell a story with interesting characters. He had already reserved one of the four leading roles for himself, something that would have been seen as an ego-trip in Hollywood, but which was actually quite justified in his case. The movie also did not actually need his complete attention as an actor, because the story had been concieved as an ensemble piece right from the beginning - all that was left to do was casting the other three characters.
While Clint Eastwood was not able to get Sean Connery and Jack Nicholson, two of his favourite initial choices, he was still able to assemble a very magnificent cast. For two of the characters he found old friends: he and James Garner had met in the 1950s during the making of an episode of the western series Rawhide and Donald Sutherland had appeared with him together in the 1970 war movie satire Kelley's Heroes. The last one to join the cast was Tommy Lee Jones, who was actually about fifteen years younger than his colleagues, but still fit perfectly in the ranks of the still young-at-heart retirees and even had some previous science-fiction experience with Men in Black.
Although each of the actors exhibited their very own styles and trademarks, they did not only portray themselves or their earlier favourite characters in Space Cowboys and instead disappeared fully into their new pesonas. Clint Eastwood doesn't play Frank Corvin just as a silent western hero or a brutal cop, but as a caustic, but sympathetic antihero, while Tommy Lee Jones actually portrays 'Hawk' as a daredevil and the only one with real cowboy ambitions. James Garner's 'Tank' is more reserved, humorous and gentle, but Donald Sutherland has much fun playing the aged, but still skirt-chasing hippie, almost like his appearance thirty years before as Hawkeye in Robert Altman's MASH.
The four acting legends were joined by an excellent supporting cast, led by James Cromwell, who had appeared as the somewhat slushed spaceflight pionier Zefrem Cochrane in Star Trek First Contact a few years previously. His role in Space Cowboys was, however, a bit more straightforward: he portrays NASA Administrator Bob Gerson wonderfully as a stiff, bone-headed bureaucrat, making the character a wonderful and not entirely unrealistic satire of what is actually going on in the space agency. William Devane's crusty, gum-chewing flight controller Davis is Gerson's exact opposite - he's not only on the side of the four heroes, but also detests the way the NASA bosses handle the situation. Both of their parts are only relatively small, but their ironic and even cynical portayal makes them absolutely essential for the movie.
Space Cowboys is also remarkable because the cast is not entirely dominated by male characters. There are no female astronauts and the movie is partly a buddy comedy, but there are at least a few strong female characters. One of them is Frank Corvin's wife Barbara, who is not at all portrayed as a typical submissive Astronaut wife, but more as an annoyed spouse who does not like at all that her husband is finally going to space after all these years. Her small, but important part is wonderfully played by veteran television actress Barbara Babcock, who even had a bit of science-fiction experience when she had a few guest roles in the original Star Trek series in 1968 - but in Space Cowboys she remains with both feet firmly on earth.
A much larger character is mission controller Sarah Holland, who seems to be much more level-headed than her male colleagues, but at the same time she is completely accepted as a woman in a male-dominated field, which at that time was still not very usual at NASA. She also serves as a romantic interest for one of the heroes, which made it not easy to cast the role because of the age difference - but Clint Eastwood made the wise choice of casting Marcia Gay Harden, who pulls her character off brilliantly in a very believable and realistic way. She's not just in the movie to fulfill its female quota, but as a very unique and original character, who plays an important part in the plot and even if she isn't following the astronauts into space, becomes their greatest ally in their adventure. In an even smaller role, Blair Brown plays Dr. Caruthers, who also turns out to be a friend of Team Daedalus.
There are no classic antagonists in Space Cowboys, not even the russian General Vostov, wonderfully played as a buffonish caricarture by croatian actor Rade Serbedzija. The young pilots shadowing the four heroes seem a little more dangerous and cocky - while Courtney B. Vance as Roger Hines still seems to be quite reasonable, Loren Dean as Ethan Glance is the real enemy, trying to undermine Frank Corvin's mission, but also acting a little like the younger incarnations of the Space Cowboys themselves.
Geriatrics in Space was, of course, the basis of Space Cowboys, but the two writers Ken Kaufman and Howard Clausner had transformed the concept into a very exciting, amazing and funny story that even incluced quite a bit of depth. As a director, Clint Eastwood made sure that the story, including its spaceflight elements, was realised in an entirely believable way. Space Cowboys differentiates itself pleasantly from othe space spectacles by being at least partly realistic and forgoeing any unnecessary action sequences, American patriotism and dramatic doomsday scenarios - although there is a bit of the latter present. Instead the authors and filmmakers had concentrated on an easygoing atmosphere and a partly humorous undertone without making the movie a complete comedy.
Of course Space Cowboys gets its humour partly from the age of the lead actors, but they are not ridiculed at all and actually give the other characters a good run for their money. Back at the end of the 1990s when the movie was made, older astronauts were still an exception, but today many of the inhabitants of the International Space Station are actually very close to the age of the four lead actors were back then. Part of the story is also a generational conflict, but this is actually portrayed in a very humorous and not entirely serious way. NASA is paid the respect it deserves, at least as far as the spaceflight capabilities itself are concerned. The administration is, however, portrayed in a bit of a satirical way, but always stopping short of making the spaceflight boss seem completely incompetent.
For Clint Eastwood it was very important as a filmmaker not to become a laughingstock, which is why realistic sets and visual effects were one of the most important parts of the production. Many scenes of the training program were filmed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Texas, but the interior of the Space Shuttle had, of course, to be recrerated in the studio. Clint Eastwood had brought legendary production designer Henry Bumstead out of retirement, who worked closely with NASA to construct the sets as detailed as possible. The Space Shuttle was not however recreated in a completely realistic way because Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland were so tall that they would have barely fit in the original spacecraft - so the dimensions had to be a bit enlarged and stretched.
Nearly all exterior space shots were exclusively made with the help of computer graphics. Industrial Light and Magic not only created a wonderful virtual Space Shuttle on the basis of a detailed model and extensive blueprints provided by NASA, but also a completely fictional russian communications satellite, which looks like a russian Soyuz spacecraft on steroids and is the only real science-fiction element of the movie. The astronauts also had to be digitally created - some scenes were filmed with the actors in spacesuits in front of a greenscreen, but in many scenes the faces of the actors were integrated into the CGI elements. In spite of being a completely digital creation - model work was not involved at all - the space sequences look absolutely breathtaking and really capture the indescribable experience of spaceflight amazingly well without being too flashy.
Musically, Space Cowboys is relatively inconspicuous. The score of Clint Eastwoods favourite composer Lennie Niehaus creates a very suspenseful atmosphere, but is used in only a few scenes - most of the movie actually manages completely without music. The similarities to Apollo 13 are quite noticeable, but Space Cowboys does not have any of the militaristic overtones of James Horner's score. There are some obligatory marches, but they do not sound very brisk or patriotic - instead they are more used as an ironic and cynical element of the plot.
Space Cowboys actually begins not with an orchestral flourish, but with a quiet and thoughtful acoustic guitar theme called Espacio, composed by Clint Eastwood himself. It starts the movie with a thoughtful and nostalgic atmosphere and lulls the viewer in a peaceful mood, before the jets of the young pilots begin to buzz through the flashback. The movie is also riddled with many old popsongs, but they are integrated so well into the soundtrack that they are often only noticeable on very close hearing. One regreful exception is the hiphop-piece Space Cowboy from the boyband N'Sync, which is thankfully heard only for a few seconds, but still sticks out like a sore thumb in the score. The use of Frank Sinatra's iconic recording of Fly Me To The Moon in the closing credit makes up very well for this stylistic blunder.
Space Cowboys unmistakably sports handwriting of Clint Eastwood, who in spite of all action and special effects had successfully concentrated on the one thing that matters most in filmmaking, the storytelling. Like his own character Frank Corvin, he also took the opportunity to make a dream come true in his old age, making a very special movie together with three actors of his own generation. Eastwoods space adventure had at first been belittled and ridiculed and even brandmarked as brainless popcorn cinema, but when the movie was finally released, even the most cynical critics had to acknowledge that there was actually a very charming, character-driven story in Space Cowboys, in which the actors and not the effects were the real stars.
The movie is also a wonderful homage to human space flight and one of the few movies representing NASA's Space Shuttle program in a very affectionate way. It was made in the heyday of the Space Shuttle era, just when the American space program was at the height of its success - the shuttles were flying regularly, the changeover from the russian space station Mir to the International Space Station was in full swing and the Challenger disaster of 1986 was far in the past. But with the loss of Columbia and its crew during reentry in 2003 all this changed and positive, feel-good stories involving the shuttle fleet became a taboo. When the immense dangers of space flight were brought to the public mind again by the repeated disaster, Hollywood again lost interest in this unique mixture of space adventure, action and comedy, making Space Cowboys probably the last of its kind.
After a relatively successful run in cinemas all over the world, Space Cowboys actually took more than three quarters of a year to reach the home video market. The DVD was finally released in spring 2001 almost simultaneously in the USA and Europe in nearly identical versions. While the bonus materials were not especially numerous, the very good technical quality made a new release apart from a repackaging from snapper- to keepcase unnecessary. Later, the movie as also been released on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray using the same exemplary HD master of the DVD, but not with any additional special features.
The DVD reviewed in this article is the German first edition released in spring 2001, which is still identical to the current releases and represents the best standard-definition version of Space Cowboys even a full decade later.