The year is 1958. Frank Corvin, a bit of a rebel and a hothead, leads Daedalus, a small Air Force team training to be the first men in space. However, his lead pilot, William "Hawk" Hawkins is even wilder. He pushes a test flight beyond its limit. They have to bail out. The plane is destroyed, and it leads the project director, Bob Gerson, to pull the plug on Daedalus and set his sights on putting a chimp into space first instead.
We cut to the present (circa 2000). A Russian "communications satellite" is experiencing problems and will return to Earth if it isn't fixed. We see a Russian General, Vostow (Rade Serbedzjia) and Gerson (James Cromwell), now a NASA director, agreeing to attempt repair. The only problem is that the guidance system is so antiquated--it's the same as the old Skylab guidance system--that no one in NASA can quite figure it out, and they only have a few weeks to act. It turns out that Corvin (Clint Eastwood) designed the guidance system. Gerson and Corvin understandably hate each other because of the events in 1958, but Gerson gives the okay to contact Corvin to see if he can fix the system somehow or train others to do it. Corvin finally agrees, but only if Gerson consents to a seemingly crazy plan--Corvin wants the four members of Daedalus--Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland), Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and himself, all now senior citizens--to be sent up in the space shuttle to fix the satellite.
As many have pointed out, Space Cowboys seems like a bit of a riff on Armageddon (1998), and understandably so--an unlikely, gruff, motley crew are sent into space by NASA on short notice to stave off some kind of impending disaster. However, it would be difficult to say that Space Cowboys was directly influenced by Armageddon. They're too close in time, and scripts have a tendency to float around Hollywood for a while before they're picked up and greenlighted. What seems more likely is that Space Cowboys was just another one of the films riding on a trend in the late 1990s for sending motley crews into the face of danger in some kind of insular vehicle, against all odds, to "save the planet". It wasn't only Armageddon that had that plot, and at any rate, anyone who regularly reads my reviews knows that I disagree with the "cult of originality". Films aren't better just because they're unprecedented. Space Cowboys does the plot just as well as Armageddon.
Besides, like Armageddon, there are other stories happening here, too. The focus is much more on the geriatric crew and their relationships to each other and a few select NASA employees. After the period intro, the bulk of the film focuses on Corvin fighting for the agreement to get his friends into space, trying to get his friends regrouped, fighting against Gerson, who is trying to sabotage him in various ways, and Daedalus' training period.
Given that structure, the casting was extremely important. Eastwood, who also directed, produced and contributed some of the music, put together an excellent bunch. Eastwood, Jones, Sutherland and Garner mesh extremely well, even if Sutherland and Garner do not get nearly as much screen time. This is a fairly serious film in many ways, but it also has a strong comic element running throughout. Eastwood and scriptwriters Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner find a nice balance between the film's various modes. Although the NASA-oriented material works well enough, the best moments arrive through the core cast's more mundane interactions, including the scenes where Corvin first tracks his friends down.
We know that Eastwood as a director is extremely skilled and multifaceted. Even at that, it was surprising initially to see him tackle film with sci-fi elements, but he's just as adept here, whether it's creating suspenseful moments that hinge on dial-loaded equipment or achieving attractive "space" cinematography. He proves a natural at the latter--the closing scene of the film is one of the more poetic yet economical in cinema history.
However, some of the film's minor flaws also arrive with the sci-fi material, but seem to emanate from the script. The dialogue can become too jargony and/or gobbledy-gooky to follow, especially during a few crucial moments. I never did quite follow the final solution to the dilemma, despite rewinding the DVD a couple times and putting on the subtitles, although I was able to figure out the gist of it so it made sense in a more fantastical way.
But even without a full comprehension of the plot details when it came to technology-oriented ideas, Eastwood as a director is able to completely wrap you up in the film emotionally. The climax is sustained and will have you on the edge of your seat, ready to cheer the penultimate scene, despite realizing how ridiculous it is to do this towards your television.
Although it's not a "perfect" film, Space Cowboys delivers just what it should--a very entertaining "ride" with a fair amount of poignant subtexts about friendship, loyalties and our culture's off-base conventions/popular beliefs about age and ability.