Clint Eastwood’s movies have become more interesting as subtext than as text. His previous film, True Crime, and his new one, Space Cowboys, are both about beating the clock — finding evidence to exonerate a condemned man before he gets executed, reconfiguring an out-of-control satellite — but they’re really about beating the clock in the larger sense. These movies were made by a man (Eastwood is now 70) who has begun to recognize that, as his character says here, “the clock is ticking and I’m not getting any younger.”
Space Cowboys has a somewhat dispiriting sub-subtext as well. The premise has four over-the-hill flyboys — Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland — proving their mettle one last time as NASA shoots them into space to deal with an unstable Russian satellite. The movie feels as though Eastwood is proving that he can play the same game as young whippersnappers like Michael Bay (Armageddon), and also that you don’t have to be Ben Affleck to carry a big-budget summer movie. Trouble is, Eastwood is — or should be — above this degraded game. This is the man who deservedly won the Oscar for directing the great and powerful Unforgiven; he has nothing to prove to anyone.
The movie plays like an Eastwood version of Armageddon, which is sometimes for the best: Where Michael Bay was hyperactive, Eastwood is calm and unhurried; where Bay fractured his actors’ work beyond recognition with his A.D.D. editing, Eastwood allows himself and his co-stars to breathe, to interact, to have moments that are unnecessary in the cold terms of plot but manage to give us a keener sense of the people we’re spending two hours with. The scenes in which Eastwood tracks down his old buddies (or, in one case, old rival), and the sequences in which the four creaky men endure rigorous astronaut training, are unavoidably winning, and Eastwood never lets the old-age humor lapse into the crudity of, say, a late-period Lemmon-Matthau comedy about doddering codgers in space.
Eastwood and friends have their obstacles on the ground, of course: the younger astronauts aren’t sure their elders can hack it, and Eastwood butts heads with NASA officials James Cromwell (give him another Babe movie, because he’s played this same guy about ten times) and William Devane (who plays a similar cynical bigwig in the contemporaneous Hollow Man). As in True Crime, the plot of Space Cowboys is the smallest thing it has going for it. And I’m not sure that a relaxed treatment of tense outer-space moments is the way to go. The last half hour — the climax we’re supposedly here for — is flat-out dull. Eastwood has indeed proven that he can direct special-effects scenes every bit as boringly as a younger director.
This isn’t an auspicious millennial debut for Eastwood. He began the ’90s with the compelling White Hunter, Black Heart, in which he played a character based on John Huston; perhaps Eastwood should take a page from Huston and show his vitality not by directing young man’s movies, but by picking difficult projects and breathing life into them. Eastwood needs to understand that the audience that used to hoot and holler when he blew away punks has grown along with him. He’s taken chances throughout his directing career, and maybe this is just his new-model Firefox — his attempt to reassure the studio that he still has commercial instincts and isn’t going to withdraw totally into artsy money-losers like Bird and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. For now, though, we understand Eastwood can still direct, and we realize he’s starting to think about his mortality. What next?