Space Cowboys (2000)

Space Cowboys.jpg

I can’t fill up a spaceship with geriatrics.  In 1958, the members of Team Daedalus, a group of top Air Force test pilots, were ready to serve their country as the first Americans in space. When NASA replaced the Air Force for outer atmospheric testing, they were pushed aside for a chimpanzee by nemesis Bob Gerson (James Cromwell). The team retired, but the dream of going into space has never died. Forty years later, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into NASA to see Gerson who’s now a NASA project manager. A Cold War Russian communications satellite is freeflying and out of control and the archaic control system is based on Frank’s old SKYLAB design. He gathers the old guys from the Right Stuff days – widower Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and pastor Tank Sullivan (James Garner) and they go through the rigorous  training of any young team,  trying to do in 30 days what would normally be done in 12 months. Then Frank is told he can’t go up but he also finds out one of his team has cancer. When he finally assembles everyone and they’re joined by Ethan (Loren Dean) and Roger (Courtney B. Vance) the younger astronauts supposedly there to do the real work, he sees that the satellite is nuked, a violation of the Outer Space Treaty You don’t need to be putting foolish notions in the head of a fool. From a screenplay by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner, star and director Eastwood fashions an old geezer take on the men on a mission movie, with a nostalgic harking back to the test pilot days when the moon was still a dream in the sky. Gathering a cast of veteran actors (Jones has a big role, Sutherland some comic moments, Garner is poorly served) they literally go through the motions of contemporary space flight and have to face some difficult home truths as well as the inevitable jeopardy.  That the premise’s hook is that the KGB stole the designs in the first place tells us a lot about what might really been going on all this Hot Non-War time with those lovely Russians. There’s all the technology and the moon yearning to consider but really this is about a bunch of ageing flyers achieving their ambitions and getting to their final destination with some romance provided on the ground by Marcia Gay Harden with medical advice from Blair Brown. The coda of course is a tribute to Dr Strangelove and you can’t say much better than that in the original geriaction movie that is quite literally the final frontier. An amiable, charming work, filled out with the smooth sounds of regular Eastwood collaborator Lennie Niehaus. They were around when rockets were born

 

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First Man (2018)

First Man

You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But, space exploration changes your perception. Following the death of his daughter, pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to train as an astronaut and participate in the Project Gemini space program, NASA’s project to put a man on the moon by the end of the Sixties. From 1961 through the Apollo 11 landing of July 1969,  details of the different phases of the mission and their effects are dramatised involving his co-pilots and his family … I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it, allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But, just haven’t been able to until now. Josh Singer adapted James R. Hansen’s biographical book about the man who took a step into the future and history, all at once. It reunites the LA LA Land dream team, Gosling and auteur Damien Chazelle, and the theme is announced in an early line of dialogue about gaining a different perspective on things. What’s wonderful about this – in the true sense, exhibiting wonder – is that it bridges the chasm between inner (human) and outer space:  this is a story of scale and it offers man-size thrills. Armstrong is no less an enigma here than elsewhere but the link between his tiny daughter’s death from a brain tumour and what he needs to do to come to terms with it is the unique narrative trope that humanises him and gives the filmmakers those private moments that enable us to have a sympathetic insight:  when he’s working out his engineering problems, he’s also writing up medical notes on little Karen’s progress;  after her funeral he pulls the curtains on his study and sits down to cry, alone, at the same desk where he charted her reaction to treatment. This is a portrait of a very private man whose profound sense of loss actually untethers him. The payoff and the personal clarification – and perhaps fulfillment, or even annihilation – because Armstrong’s characterisation is a masterclass in avoidance and obfuscation – is finally achieved when he goes on that moonwalk and leaves something of Karen on the surface of the mysterious object that he watches each night, from earth. In between there are missions and experiments and deaths, terrible deaths. Crashing into buildings in fog. Burning alive. As Armstrong points out, better to fail down here so that we don’t fail up there. And it all takes place against a febrile political background and rivalry with the Soviet Union. What’s radical about this is how lo-fi the technology is – and if you’ve been to Cape Canaveral you’ll know how everything seems to be made from balsa wood and tin foil, something that Janet points out to Armstrong’s platitudinising boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler):  You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  Indeed, one on-board problem is solved with a Swiss Army knife. Foy offers heat where Gosling gives us cool; together their expressivity makes a whole person and dramatises the emotion inherent in such a dangerous pursuit. She has a new baby to care for;  when he is in crisis he is visited by memories of his daughter, his hands running through her hair. The other astronauts are a variable bunch and it’s Ed White (Jason Clarke) to whom Armstrong finally mentions his dead daughter, years after they’ve first met;  and it’s the fairly noxious Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) whom he advises to be more diplomatic who winds up accompanying him on the greatest journey of them all. This is brilliantly told, from the point of view of the only man who could have explained, but didn’t. The pictures from the space craft are small, the size he would have seen. Expressions are minimal. The risk is exceptional. The awe in the final section is everything. These men truly walked with death. But there could only ever be one man to do it first and it’s a staggering personal expression of earthbound grief, finally freed. This is a film of feeling. Watch. And wonder.