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by: James Berardinelli

In a year of debacles and big budget implosions like Supernova, Mission to Mars, and the unforgettable Battlefield Earth, the task of creating the most satisfying science fiction movie (to date) has been left to veteran director Clint Eastwood. While his overlong Space Cowboys is not a portrait of cinematic perfection, it is consistently engaging, features likable, irascible characters, and does not descend into the shoot-and-scoot idiocy that has marked far too many recent outer space endeavors. While there are definitely a few plot point similarities between Space Cowboys and Armageddon, in tone and approach, Eastwood's effort owes more to Contact.

During the course of a long and productive career as an actor, producer, and director, Eastwood has worked in a wide variety of genres. As the Man With No Name, he strode through several of the best-known "Spaghetti Westerns." As Dirty Harry Callahan, his lips spat out one-liners as quickly as his gun spewed lead. He has also been a secret service agent in In the Line of Fire, an investigative journalist in True Crime, a thoughtful photographer in The Bridges of Madison County, and Clyde the orangutan's best friend in Every Which Way But Loose/Every Which Way You Can. Behind the camera, he has directed such well-respected movies as Heartbreak Ridge, White Hunter Black Heart, and Unforgiven. However, before Space Cowboys, he has never been into outer space, nor has he worked with such a lavish special effects budget. (Virtually every shot in the last 45 minutes appears to have been visually enhanced.)

In 1958, the four men of Team Daedalus were the most experienced and daring that the Air Force had to offer. With their eyes on some day reaching outer space, they piloted prototype airplanes that broke speed and altitude records until their boss, Bob Gerson, shut them down when NASA was created. The team broke apart, each of them heading in separate directions - until 40 years later, when the orbit of the Russian communications satellite Icon begins to decay. The satellite has only five weeks before it burns up in the atmosphere, and the Russians are worried that its loss will cripple their telecommunications infrastructure and perhaps start a civil war. Gerson (James Cromwell), now a bigshot at NASA, sees an opportunity to help the Russians save face. But Icon's antiquated guidance system will not respond to commands sent from Earth and no one currently at NASA knows how to fix it. So, grudgingly, Gerson approaches Frank Corvin (Eastwood), the leader of Team Daedalus and the creator of Icon's "dinosaur" guidance system. Frank agrees to help, but there's a condition: he and the other three members of his team - pilot Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), navigator Tank Sullivan (James Garner), and structural engineer Jerry O'Nell (Donald Sutherland) - must be on the space shuttle when it launches. NASA counters with terms of its own. Frank must agree to take two current astronauts, Ethan Glance (Loren Dean) and Roger Hines (Courtney B. Vance), with him, and the members of Team Daedalus must be able to qualify for the trip by passing the training program.

The longest portion of Space Cowboys is the setup, which comprises about 60% of the running length. While I appreciate movies that take the time to introduce the characters and situations and slowly ease into the action, Space Cowboys lets this part of the film run too long. Some of the material presented during this portion is redundant and unnecessary, such as the lengthy sequence in which the Team Daedalus members are reunited and the obligatory barroom brawl which emphasizes interpersonal friction we're already aware of. The same degree of character development and background material could have been presented in about two-thirds of the time. Once the action shifts to th


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