Space Cowboys

Space Cowboys. Malpaso/Mad Chance. 2000.

Before watching the movie:

What happens when a bunch of engineers who became ranchers or something I guess go into space to fix a satellite only they can fix? This movie, apparently.

I get the conceit that these engineers are being called out of retirement to fix space-based equipment that was designed on standards nobody learns anymore, and it takes less time to train the experts to be astronauts than to train the astronauts to be experts for the same reason as Armageddon, Because that’s how you get a movie.

After watching the movie:

In 1958, the Air Force test pilots of Project Daedalus were sure they’ll be going into space once the tech is ready, only to discover that with the creation of NASA, Daedalus is being retired, and none of their hotheadedness will be entering the astronaut program. Now, the old Soviet communications satellite IKON is falling out of orbit and the Russians are asking NASA for assistance stabilizing it to avoid a major disruption to the network. The problem with IKON is the guidance system too ancient for modern engineers to confidently repair, which engineer Sara Holland recognizes as identical to the Skylab guidance system designed by Frank Corvin of Daedalus. As the mission is being managed by his old supervisor and nemesis Bob Gerson, Frank initially refuses to help, then comes up with a solution. Frank offers to go to space to fix IKON himself, but only with the full Daedalus team as his crew. Bob only agrees to this under the condition that every member of the team pass physical and mental astronaut qualifications, and that they train with astronaut backups, secretly plotting to find any reason to fail them and send his own team. Frank, Hawk, Tank, and Jerry surpass expectations, cheat where they can, and charm others into helping them, preparing for their shot at what was denied to them 40 years ago.

I thought at least one of these guys became an actual cowboy, but it’s just Hawk’s cowboy hat and the maverick nature of the stubborn individualists that our heroes are. Tank became a Baptist minister and Jerry never left the 60s state of mind, but they’re secondary to Frank and Hawk, whose friendly rivalry/rivalrous friendship is one of the centers of the movie, as their egos and tempers often bring them into opposition.

The opening sequence set 40 years ago takes an interesting approach to portraying the old characters as young men. Now, 20 years later, it’s become commonplace to use motion capture CGI to take years off of actors for limited sequences, and Captain Marvel made Samuel L. Jackson 25 years younger for the full run of the movie very convincingly. Before that was possible, or if cost is prohibitive, makeup can be employed, but 40 years is a stretch. In lieu of other options, casting younger actors who look similar is the most budget-conscious option, but it can also create a disconnect between the younger and older portrayals. This movie does something I’ve never seen before to bridge that gap. The prologue is done with younger actors, but dubbed by the main cast. However, I’m not sure any of them made any attempt to sound like young men when recording the dub, and even if they had, it’s eerie to hear somewhat iconic voices come out of other men’s mouths.

I think there’s value to retaining old methods and perspectives as options, but I also think that heavily tested new methods get rigidly set in place for sounder reasons than someone saying “the old ways just worked and we shouldn’t have changed.” This movie, directed, produced, and lead by Clint Eastwood, is very much of the “experience knows better than experts” thesis. The climax goes to pretty outlandish lengths to demonstrate that, even for a movie about a bunch of 60-year-olds flying a space mission of delicate international importance.

I appreciate that this post-cold war movie uses prior cold war hostility as a plot device, but doesn’t fall back on “rogue former soviets terrorizing freedom” like the 90s were riddled with before America discovered that brown people who speak another language are the truest form of evil. The Russians aren’t being fully candid, but they seriously are in need of international cooperation, and at the end of the day, diplomacy is saved.

As a rumination on aging with a heavy helping of second chances and wish fulfillment, this hits its marks without bothering to bring in many curveballs. The ride that’s promised is the ride that’s delivered, and there’s no failure in that.

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