Space Cowboys, 2000. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, James Cromwell, Marcia Gay Harden, Blair Brown, William DeVane.

Synopsis: The orbit of a Russian communication satellite is beginning to decay. NASA has been contracted to maintain the satellite and the Russian government insists on maintaining its orbit rather than allowing it to reenter the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the guidance system is too old to interface with NASA's current equipment. The satellite will have to be fixed by hand by a crew aboard a space shuttle. The only man who can do the job is retired test pilot/almost-astronaut Frank Corvin. Corvin and the other members of his crew were screwed out of going into space by bureaucrat Bob Gerson when he Corvin was young. Gerson is now in charge of saving the Russian satellite. Corvin takes great delight in blackmailing him into sending him, and his team, into space. Corvin reassembles them, they train for the mission, and they set of in a space shuttle. What they find in space is a nasty surprise--it's not really a communication satellite at all, but an orbiting nuclear weapons platform. The mission suddenly takes on a sense of urgent desperation. Corvin's crew has to fix the platform, or else it will rain nuclear destruction on humanity....

Going Through the Motions: Let's face it, most of Space Cowboys is populated by generic cliches and stock characters. It's not the most original movie you've ever seen in your life. The training sequences play like a geriatric version of Rocky. The adventure elements are by the numbers. When one character does something unorthodox in a flight simulator, you can bet that it's going to figure prominently in the movie's climax. If you are looking for visionary science fiction in this movie (or, for that matter, any movie anymore...), look elsewhere.

Once More, With Feeling...: Despite the fact that Space Cowboys is assembled from stock bits, it works marvelously. This is a lot like a Howard Hawks western (Rio Lobo, for instance), in which all of the characters and all of the situations have been used before, but Hawks's no nonsense approach to the material MAKES it fresh. Director Clint Eastwood is an heir to Hawks (despite the fact that he never worked for Hawks), a hard nosed filmmaker with a tremendous respect for classical forms and with the patience to let the story and characters take care of themselves without the intrusion of a prima donna directorial stylist. Sure, the story is cliches, but Eastwood and his cast execute the movie with such conviction that it still works. Mix in the charisma of Eastwood's geriatric astronauts and you have yourself one fine entertainment.

Formal Particulars: All of the actors in Space Cowboys are consummate professionals. The four principals--Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner--are so experienced and savvy that they are absolutely convincing in their roles. James Cromwell as weasly functionary Bob Gerson seems to have found a second career portraying weasly functionaries. The actors are very good. The film is certainly filmed with an eye towards presenting NASA as it really is. Oh, don't get me wrong: it's a fairy tale version of NASA,. But it SEEMS like what NASA ought to be, so the audience believes it. The biggest treat in the movie is the special effects. I know that it has become commonplace for movies to have great special effects (I am not personally convinced that the special effects in such effects movies as Gladiator, The Mummy, or The Matrix are all that great, but this is beside the point...), but the effects in Space Cowboys are convincing in a way that computer effects usually AREN'T convincing. They have a palpable reality to them that causes them to recede into the background a bit. They aren't flashy, but damned if they don't look good. In fact, the whole movie looks good. Eastwood's longtime cinematographer, Jack Green, does excellent work here.

In one respect, Space Cowboys IS surprising: in a summer choked with empty-headed extravaganzas that are more concerned with style than they are with substance, Space Cowboys seems like an anachronism. It's more concerned with entertaining the audience than it is with having a huge opening weekend. Hollywood could learn something from this....