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For all that I enjoyed Space Cowboys, and will probably watch it again, oh dear lord there’s a whole lot of stupid in the set up.

The Stupid isn’t the Premise. Mostly.

I’m not even talking about the core conceit, which is sending antiquated experts up into space to fix antiquated technology. That I can live with, after all John Glenn successfully rode the shuttle when he was 77, and the rest of the core conceit is Artistic License. If you’re not prepared to deal with that on its own terms, why watch Space Cowboys at all?

Yes, that means accepting that the old pilots can do things manually[1] that the youngsters[2] can’t do without computers. Deal with it.

The part of the premise where Team Daedalus[3] are cheated out of space flight in the 50s, and publicly humiliated, because of personal issues was maybe a little questionable. The closest historical analogue to Team Daedalus, Chuck Yeager[4], was never resentful of the space program as far as I can tell. Still, some of this was necessary to drive the personal drama within the movie, so I’m prepared to let this slide.

The real issue lies with the Russian “communications” satellite IKON that the Space Cowboys are supposed to be repairling, and boosting back into a geosynchronous orbit.

You Do Not Lie About the Mission

The Idiot Plot of Space Cowboys arises from the astronauts not being told that “You know that satellite you’re going to fix. Well, actually, it’s got half a dozen nuclear missiles on it, and oh by the way it’s got active defence systems. Here’s how to get past those”. Those are kind of important things to leave out.

You do not lie to your astronauts about what the mission is. That’s just stupid and begging for disaster.

The idiocy is reinforced by the mission taking place because the Russians are asking for help. And further reinforced when they admit to some modifications, and no-one points a telescope at the thing to find out what it looks like now.

Really? I mean, really? If I had to send people up to fix a satellite with unknown modifications the first two things I’d do would be to demand full specifications on the changes and point a telescope or three at the thing to get a good look at it first.

Also why wouldn’t the Russians, who still have their own manned space program by the way[5], fix the damned thing themselves so as not to reveal the nukes to the U.S?

Fortunately these revelations come late enough in the film that I just rolled my eyes and let it go whilst I was watching.  But as I tweeted at the time:

No, really, this film is actually a lot of fun.

Despite the above issues, Space Cowboys is a lot of fun. Much like The Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, there’s a fair bit of knowing deconstruction of The Right Stuff going on, particularly with respect to NASA’s medical procedures as they’d apply to aged astronauts like Team Daedalus. Amusingly Team Daedalus don’t get away with nearly as much as they think they do, but necessity keeps them on the mission.

The training sequences are well handled, as is the dramatic arc for the reconciliation between Hawkins and Corvin over the course of the film. The space sequences are again well handled, if occasionally stretching disbelief.

Space Cowboys looks and sounds great. The core cast deliver reasonably solid performances, but not ones outside their usual range. Clint Eastwood’s Frank Corvin is a pretty typical Clint Eastwood character.

But the package as a whole is skilfully directed by Eastwood, and my attention never wandered whilst I was watching Space Cowboys.

The Verdict

Despite that whole world of “Nope, not believing that”, Space Cowboys is a fun film to watch, and I’ll probably come back to it again at some point. Definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it.

[1] Like landing a crippled shuttle without automated flight controls.

[2] One of whom is also a gung ho idiot, who gets a great big idiot ball all of his own.

[3] Team Daedalus are Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), William Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), “Tank” Sullivan (James Garner), and Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland). All fairly amusing in a 50s’ “Flying and Drinking, Drinking and Driving” test pilot kind of a way.

[4] See also: The Right Stuff

[5] The International Space Station kind of depends on it, and has done since the Shuttle was retired.