Space Cowboys (Clint Eastwood, 2000)

(1)

Faux black and white: the memory of an echo chamber. A plane in the big sky, strangely reminiscent of Firefox (Clint Eastwood, 1982), a couple of young boys, haunted by the voices of old men, engaging in aloof foolishness. “Every boy dreams of being an Astronaut when he grows up”, says Marcia Gay Harden to Tommy Lee Jones, later on. “Yes”, he replies, “but which boy ever wants to grow up?”

Clint Eastwood has, and for a long time now; it’s the reason why talking about him mainly means to clear up misunderstandings. The all-American boy who almost accidentally stepped into the spotlight by shooting amoral European low-budget westerns seems to be the person most baffled by his success. He has devoted an entire career to meditate on the reasons: the bigger part of his oeuvre is centered on a re-examination of the iconic “Man With No Name” character he played initially, constantly refining the original outlines of the figure and more often than not with a good deal of irony. A trait of his work that has been mainly lost on the mainstream press who sees him reliving the “same” part over and over again, seeing only weaknesses in the script rather than subtleties of character and expression (2). His first mentor, Sergio Leone, was a man who single-handedly destroyed a genre to rebuild it on his own terms. His second mentor, Don Siegel, was one of the last masters of classical filmmaking who lived through the New Hollywood era and continued to shoot pictures on his own terms: a vision too tough to kill, even in its most compromised appearances. Eastwood, who insists on being sub-par to both, has long learned their lessons and transformed into something so old it’s new. The last craftsman in Hollywood with a worldview of his own, he is – almost logically, considering the similar self-stylization of Hawks, Hitchcock or Ford – the last old-school auteur. He has likewise not been considered an artist for most of his time yet has stubbornly and happily continued to make some of the greatest art in contemporary American cinema.

His ‘official’ masterpiece, Unforgiven (1992), has understandably been hailed an exemplary revisionist Western, reviving the genre when it was surely dead – a claim that reeks of the biggest Hollywood self-satisfaction coup d’etat since the claim that Welles’ only important contribution to the canon is Citizen Kane (1941). Let the old cowboy have his due, he has made a good film at the right time, the right place. But the genre deconstruction, as masterful as it’s applied, is one of the least interesting aspects of the movie – it’s just a part of Eastwood’s ongoing, singular project (for he is the only one to rearrange the myth according to himself, the true dirActor (3), constantly destroying and rebuilding his very own screen persona, before and behind the camera). Unforgiven lives up to its title: the aging star revisits his beginnings to find out that his only (box-office) quality is to kill, an angel of death as collective wish-fulfillment. Elsewhere, I have discussed that (4) the revisionist portrayal of the Westerner as compulsive killer marks an end of Eastwood’s reconfiguration of his screen persona. It is interesting in this light that his subsequent films have either subdued the central role of his character (Perfect World [1993]), omitted it (Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil [1997]), presented it in an entirely different light (The Bridges Of Madison County [1995]) or integrated it into an ensemble piece where he is just one of many equally strong figures (his last three features), a quality that marks his considerable advance as a director in the ’90s, given that his earlier work, for all its virtues, was mainly concentrating on his figure exclusively. In Unforgiven the real pain lies less in the realization of the popular image of ‘Westerner as compulsive killer’ than in the fact that the only choice is to relive the killer instinct over and over. Unforgiven ends a cycle of self-reflexive work, starting with his debut Play Misty For Me in 1971 and moving via the gradually expansive genre pieces of the ’70s – after a more gentle tone in the early ’80s – to a bleak, unforgiving series of films in the midst of that decade that culminated in the almost abstract layering of his screen persona and a vision of John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). Throughout, often mixing incompatible styles (5) with a classical grace that makes his films so pleasurable on a sheer entertainment level that their hidden agenda, the reshaping of the Eastwood persona, passes unnoticed. So that what is so interesting about Eastwood is how he has managed to create a body of work that constantly reshapes his own screen image while simultaneously remaining popular.

Like the one for Space Cowboys (2000), on the surface a more than amiable variation on the happy-go-lucky theme of the old pros showing the youngsters where it’s at. It boasts so much throwaway acting capability by, precisely, casting a group of old pros, and sheer comic pleasure through both their self-demeaning and self-glorifying portrayal, in which they look both completely childish and cool at the same time (for example, the struggle up the stairs in their dateless Daedalus bomber jackets to a mystifyingly unfit hip-hop tune). It’s a prime example of Eastwood’s ’90s work, basically the last outpost of classical Hollywood filmmaking (and with the flexibility of any true craftsman Space Cowboys proves he can handle special effects as well: the scenes in outer space are among the most poetic the genre has produced in the last decade). His films – always illustrative of a director achieving personal expression within studio, contract filmmaking – have been less and less concerned with the actual “story” (the denial of a showdown in Absolute Power [1996], the much maligned, ambiguous “happy end” of True Crime [1999]) but with the characters themselves. You’ll hardly find more fully rounded, expertly acted Hollywood character sketches than in an Eastwood film these days. A point in case: William Devane’s pitch-perfect supporting part here, nailing the hard-nosed sincerity and self-conscious irony that’s the basis of Space Cowboys with an unerring ease that has increasingly become the trademark of Eastwood’s latest work. But what is just as important and intriguing is how that cooperation of performers works. You won’t find an “outstanding turn” because it’s all designed to blend smoothly into a collective shining of old-fashioned character acting rather than a few individualisms colliding with each other. Even Eastwood’s own enigma, his slyly placed trademark expressions become fewer and are often dealt with quickly – a remnant of the star’s way to fame, an almost unwelcome necessity like Hitch’s cameos.

Space Cowboys in many ways is the peak of this development – the self-effacement of the ‘star’. Eastwood casts himself as one of the four elderly characters, allotting them (especially his doppelgänger/nemesis, Tommy Lee Jones) as much screen time as himself. Perhaps the less enthusiastic responses to his films can be attributed to the fact that the term “a Clint Eastwood movie” needs to be applied with more scrutiny. Eastwood still has the knack of magically enlightening the center of a movie (for example, his turning of In The Line Of Fire [Wolfgang Petersen, 1993] into something next to a masterpiece despite its director being no more than an occasionally excellent suspense-hack with a penchant for bad scripts), but it is no longer necessary for him to dwell on it – his films have shown less and less of ‘Eastwood the star’ and more of ‘Eastwood the family man’. The most interesting clash between the two probably occurs in Absolute Power where the topic of family is stressed at the cost of the thriller aspect of the story: Eastwood’s Luther Whitney is more concerned with the relationship to his daughter (Laura Linney) than with the crime that triggers the events. The result forms an ambiguous web of moral dilemmas, further complicated in its relation to real life by the appearance of Eastwood’s own daughter Alison.

Family and death are the centerpieces of Eastwood’s films and in both cases these terms signify more than their literal meaning. Death is often a mythical figure in his work. In Space Cowboys it drifts so far off into myth that it loses any sense of threat; Eastwood takes the story to its logical conclusion and kills any suspense that could be milked from the script with gentle irony and world-weary wisdom. Family, in one sense, includes not only his blood relatives (although they also do show up, most pungently in the case of his son in the melancholy road movie Honkytonk Man [1982], a film that has more to do with John Ford than with country music) but his crew of collaborators that have stayed with him through a phase of his career, like director of photography Jack N. Green or editor Joel Cox. A rare phenomenon in current Hollywood filmmaking practice.

The ‘family’ aspect is present in another sense. Similar to the late phase of Hawks or Ford, Eastwood’s films in the ’90s have become family pictures not in the usual sense of the word but in the mood they emanate and in the relations between characters. Eastwood once described the nature of work in his ironically named company “Malpaso” as: “We don’t have staff or organization. I take a few pencils and some paper, grab a six-pack of beer and then we start working.” The same laid-back attitude can be spotted throughout most of the first half of Space Cowboys. Various scenes that do little for the plot like the barroom brawl (which might of course be just a tipping of the hat to the aforementioned masters) seem to be in the film to get across this very point – a few well-timed interactions between various aging actors that simply enjoy going through the motions with one another, an infectious sense of tongue-in-cheek routine, an attitude that “this is not really necessary, but it worked out so well it would be a shame to leave it on the cutting room floor”. After all, Space Cowboys is first and foremost a comedy tied to an attitude of ‘experienced knowing’ that blurs fiction and reality – these guys have spent too much time acting out second-rate showdowns to pretend any longer that they really mean anything beyond sheer pleasure. Both in the film and in reality they know they can rely on each other and that they’re here to enjoy themselves for what it’s worth. Who needs to save the earth when you’re drifting through space with pals like these? Will anyone take the Russian killer satellite revelation seriously except for a handful of young boys that are too eager to get a feather in their cap to think? Certainly not. James Cromwell and Rabe Sherbedzija clearly get a kick out of acting this old fraud staple (that gets increasingly pointless the longer it lasts) with innocent, bright-eyed sincerity. You always have the feeling they’re suppressing the chuckle just until they’re off camera. Eastwood no longer needs to play games with the audience: everyone’s in on the joke.

Or are they? Rumors have circulated that Space Cowboys might be Eastwood’s last film (6) although with his dry irony you never know what to make of his statements. Dry irony has also placed barriers for an audience trained on a slim diet of movies that march through their territory with strikingly one-note schemes. Accordingly, many criticized True Crime because it had the nerve to include comedy and dread often within the same scene; the result is a richness that is still alive and kicking, for example in the better part of Japanese cinema or certain works from France. Yet because it defies many conventions of linear storytelling to an extreme where the most overrated of notions – suspension of disbelief – is violated, it leaves the sole purveyors of the Hollywood tradition in bafflement. Eastwood’s late work, for that matter, ranks along the late films of Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock which matured beyond classical style to a more personal cinema – there’s a similar relaxed atmosphere and less concern with expectations in Family Plot for instance – the analysis of which waits to be performed by future film scholars. In any case, Space Cowboys is filled with references to Eastwood’s earlier films to qualify as a magnum opus alone: from the chimpanzee replacing the young pilots early on (which is funny enough in itself, but even funnier in the light of Clyde, the Orang-Utan) to James Garner’s demented preacher act (Thunderbolt And Lightfoot [Michael Cimino, 1974], anyone?) up until the final shot, Space Cowboys is an echo chamber for an entire career. What’s more, it’s a cleverly arranged series of rhymes that form – often in interaction with the outside references – a series of double entendres that lives up to any great two-bit comedy routine.

Frankly, Space Cowboys states what was clear from the beginning if one had the willingness to look close enough. Eastwood’s cinema has never been a boy’s cinema in the usual sense – although many of his films (especially those which he only starred in) work well as crowd-pleasers for adolescents – because there is always an unnerving intelligence behind them that defies mere pleasure alone, although the films never state that. ‘Eastwood the director’ always tried to find out what ‘Eastwood the actor’ was about. In True Crime he went as far as playing one of Hollywood’s favorite inventions, the all-around womanizer, with his real age. Instead of noticing the irony behind it (or the tender realism it evoked in the picture opposed to the script), it was called unbelievable by some critics (7). Unbelievable in a sympathetically cheesy way, indeed describes many of Space Cowboys‘ moments (from Tommy Lee Jones’ car chase to the diner to the second landing maneuver, this time for “real”), but they serve a higher purpose than merely telling a story.

The cleverer critics have pointed out what Eastwood’s sci-fi debut has in common with Hawks, but mostly they restrained themselves to the surface similarity – a group of old pros have to rely on each other and know that they can. In fact, they remain the same childish troupe of no-good dreamers throughout the film despite their geezer appearances (8). Most of the fun in Space Cowboys is based on this collision, for example, the scene where Sutherland confidently doesn’t cover his genitalia; it also serves to point out that Eastwood has always made behavioral comedy rather than scripted one, even in his performances. What makes these old bastards so appealing despite the aura of know-it-all with which they elevate their down-to-earth-status is that they still cling to their boyish fantasies. They aren’t any better than the young astronauts on board (who screw up because they haven’t yet learned their lesson about what discerns individualism from sheepish behavior, a fact nicely echoing the chimpanzee’s introduction, by the way) and that they ultimately return home as heroes has nothing to do with their accomplishment per se but more with the fact that our society always embraces such demonstrations of success, the more childish the better. It’s also what two key scenes of the film are about. The first is the decision of Garner and Sutherland to stay in the shuttle at the risk of their lives, a decision as much a gesture of family spirit as of the fact that they have nothing left to prove. The point was to get into space, to fulfill the dream, if or how they return is completely pointless (compare Jones’ joking after he has chosen an earlier death). The accolades are the reward for the bureaucrats and careerists, something these guys have long abandoned. All that counts for them is that they can enter their house justified. The other scene is the almost unavoidably dull Jay Leno appearance – Eastwood cleverly keeps the necessary shenanigans at a minimum by keeping the scene within the TV screen on which it belongs. What’s much more important are the intercut sections with Marcia Gay Harden watching, first amused, then more and more moved. She is also one of those who have sacrificed their dreams, and the scene is as much about her admiration for the geezers finally getting their second chance as her realization that it’s never too late, possibly not even for herself. It’s a beautiful moment that evolves around the film’s central theme: sharing. Eastwood gives his ‘family’ a chance to share some time and space in a relaxed, exuberant atmosphere and in their status as personnel within the film all share a sense of professionalism and that childhood dream of flying to the moon. It goes so far that even the ‘villains’ of the film appear sympathetic, like with much of Gene Hackman’s roles in Unforgiven or Absolute Power, Eastwood has moved a long way from Manichean characterizations that may do more for a script but certainly less for the figures trapped in them.

But before it gets there, Eastwood abandons the comedy for a short while (though never entirely, the irresistible mood of the cast enjoying themselves undercuts any motions deigned for pure suspense) to dwell on the darker side of the dream. For once he delegates the melancholy part to someone else, this time Tommy Lee Jones, who not only encounters a death sentence that does not belong in the boy world of sci-fi (“Pancreas? I don’t even know what the damn thing does for me!”), but also the love affair with the younger woman. Contrarily, Eastwood, for once, allots himself a wife his age that despite her brief appearance is every bit his equal: her chuckle at his “I don’t have much spare time” says it all and is another example of Eastwood’s generous treatment of his characters, no matter how small the part. Harden has a few strangely short, intense and playful bits with Jones, though the possibility of a real affair is never given much thought anyway – that would belong in a melodrama. Since the pain of existence is whisked away by the main characters with matter-of-fact bravado, like in Mizoguchi, it remains with the women. For the men, it seems to be the question of how you die rather than if you die, that is their main concern. The men have too much to do with their boyhood dreams anyway. As they materialize, the tone of pattering pranksters having fun with each other fades out for a short while and Eastwood allows his heroes a few spins before he has two great rocks meet each other. His face, and over it, as a reflection on his helmet the good old earth. It’s less the weightless beauty of the movement that makes the scene emotional, but rather how for all the irony (Sutherland’s glasses will soon drift in with a grinning vengeance) even Eastwood cannot deny a moment of bated breath, a respectful pause for the wish fulfillment of those paper visions he has decided to fill with “actual” movie life. The shot will return, in a strange collision of multiple echoes that is as good as any in Space Cowboys. “Fly Me To The Moon” sings Tommy Lee Jones in the opening scene and cracks “seems I’ve gotten the better ending” as he really goes all the way to live up to the Sinatra song. And he gets it, in a moment that is as elegant and cool as Frankie’s voice and as impossible, wonderful and true as any scene of truly great imagination. On a seemingly monochrome moon, the earth hovering like a lively, colorful sun around it, the camera circles in (as opposed to the trademark ending of Eastwood’s films where the camera hovers out over the landscape where it took place) and, slowly, spots of color permeate the surface until it finds the resting feet of the astronaut that lies comfortably against a rock as if he were only sleeping, dreaming himself and as we reach eye level all we see on the reflecting glass of his helmet is the earth (which forms another counter-shot rhyme with Eastwood and wife staring up to the moon right before that), that foolish little planet where all the trouble started because its inhabitants believe so much in their fantasies that they let their beauty deceive them over the fact that all we share is death.

Endnotes

  1. For those mystified by this title, it is the last remnant of my initial attempt to discuss Space Cowboys simultaneously with Prefab Sprout’s last album Andromeda Heights which in another field of popular culture was an equally rewarding and magnificent attempt in classical style (in that case: the heritage of Phil Spector combined with modern technology). Ultimately I decided that this would not only make the piece about five times as long and burdened with formalist mumbo-jumbo, but that the link provided by astronomical background was too weak to reconcile the different worldviews represented in these two works.
  2. To be fair, Space Cowboys has fared much better with the critics than its two predecessors, undoubtedly thanks to the charisma of its veteran actors, though few could resist pointing out the script’s inefficiencies at least in a passing nod. The harshest example can be found in Paul Tartara’s review at http://goodauthority.org/buzz/0008/db00811/db00811a.htm.
  3. Not considering the field of comedy where this has been the modus operandi way back since Keaton and Chaplin. I’d argue that even Takeshi Kitano, probably the only comparable instance of a director working prominently on his public persona in filmmaking these days, should be seen foremost along the lines of his background as a stand-up-comedian.
  4. For further elaboration (and if you read German) see my review of Unforgiven at http://www.videofreak.at/filme/1484.html where I discuss the changes in reference that arise from David Webb Peoples’ script being filmed almost a quarter of a century after it was written.
  5. Consider for example the idiosyncratic collisions of Keatonesque comedy and violent noir in Sudden Impact (1983) or the clash of Bressonian restraint and somber action in Firefox (1982).
  6. For example, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s mentions this in his capsule review of Space Cowboys at http://onfilm.chireader.com/MovieCaps/S/SP/19160_SPACE_COWBOYS.html
  7. See for example Paul TartaraŽs review at http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Movies/9903/25/review.truecrime/ or David Edelstein in Slate (who sums it up at the beginning of his Space Cowboys review at http://slate.msn.com/moviereview/00-08-04/moviereview.asp).
  8. In many of Hawks’ best efforts, for instance Rio Bravo (1959) or Only Angel Have Wings (1938), there’s a similar attitude towards the personnel: it’s less a form of character development than character evaluation. The figures of these films do not undergo changes but rather bring their own, unshakably professional worldview as well as a playful sense of humor into the proceedings.

About The Author

Christoph Huber is a Curator in the Program Department of the Austrian Film Museum, where he co-conceived several large retrospectives. He has a Degree as DI of Physics at the Technical University of Vienna, and was a film critic and arts editor for Die Presse from 1999-2014. He is the European editor of the Canadian film magazine Cinema Scope, and a contributor to many international magazines and websites. He is co-author (with Olaf Möller) of books about Peter Kern and Dominik Graf.