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Film / Space Cowboys

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Space Cowboys is a movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner, released in 2000. It tells the story of a four-man team who, while test pilots for the USAF in the 1950s, missed out on their chance to join the American space program, but who get another chance 40 years later.

It turns out that one of them had devised a satellite system that was stolen by Soviet spies. They ended up using it for their own satellite, which they say is a large communication satellite, too large to be carried back to Earth in a shuttle. Seventeen years after its launch, its orbit is decaying, and the Russians are being surprisingly insistent on having the satellite fixed, saying that its loss could cause a catastrophic breakdown in Russian communications, and at worse, touch off a civil war. The only person who can do the job is the original designer - who agrees, but only if his three old buddies come along as well. Hilarity Ensues as NASA must prepare the oldsters for the trip.

Not to be confused with Space Truckers, or stories that contain cowboy-style people in space - see Space Western.

Contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
    • The scene in which Mary-Ann the chimp tries to shake Frank's hand could be a reference to Every Which Way but Loose, in which Clint Eastwood starred alongside an orangutan.
  • Artistic License – History: Speaking of, the first ape to go to space was actually Ham, who had his flight inside the Mercury-Redstone 2 in 1961. Before him macaques and other types of monkey were used.
  • Artistic License – Physics:
    • The satellite's orbit is decaying because it's heavy. In real life, a satellite's orbit decays due to drag from the outer atmosphere; a heavy satellite's orbit would decay more slowly than a light satellite's orbit, as greater weight means greater momentum—that is, greater resistance to a change in velocity. The "Too Heavy" part may have been a cover, given the satellite's real purpose.
    • Sara states that in order to reach the Moon, you only have to get something (in this case, a hypothetical baseball) halfway there, since the Moon's gravity would take it the rest of the way. This comes up again at the end, when there is not enough fuel available to get the satellite all the way to the Moon, but it's supposedly okay because there's enough, given a Heroic Sacrifice, to make it halfway. While it is true that you only need to get something partway to the Moon before the Moon's gravity will carry it the rest of the way in, the distance required is closer to 95%, not halfway, due to the moon's much lower gravity.
    • In the training simulation, Hawk lands the over-speeding shuttle in manual control by purposefully stalling it out at a high angle-of-attack, a maneuver which Frank later repeats to land the actual shuttle. Not only is this ridiculous, but it's also downright impossible in a Space Shuttle. It's a variation of Pugachev's cobra, which, while possible to execute, has only been performed successfully in supermaneuverable jets with advanced post-stall capabilities, such as NASA's X-31 and the Russian Su-27 "Flanker"; the Space Shuttle, on the other hand, is repeatedly (and rightfully) stated to be a "flying brick" which does not so much "fly" as "fall through the atmosphere in a controllable manner".
  • Author Appeal: Clint Eastwood is actually a huge space nerd and loves talking about science and science fiction.
  • Badass Preacher: "Tank" Sullivan (James Garner), Air Force test pilot turned Baptist minister.
  • Black Box: The only reason NASA even deigns to contact Corvin is because he is the only man still alive familiar with Skylab's and thereby the satellite's revolutionary yet antiquated guidance system. It does invert the usual reasons for this trope. The system isn't a black box because it's revolutionary and advanced, it's a black box because it's so obsolete no-one can figure it out.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Jerry (Sutherland). He nonetheless passes the NASA eyesight test by memorizing the letters while his glasses are on.note  Later on, he gets custom-made Cool Shades.
  • Brick Joke: Literally, about the Shuttle.
    Roger Hines: It's not an airplane, Colonel, it's a flying brick on approach.
    Eugene 'Gene' Davis: Easy, Frank, she's not a fighter jet.
    Frank Corvin: "Flying brick".
    Eugene 'Gene' Davis: I hope not.
    • Beyond the Impossible: First, when Hawk lands the shuttle (in the simulator), without the computer and using the aforementioned radical braking maneuver.
    Roger Hines: That's impossible!
    William 'Hawk' Hawkins: For a computer, it might be.
    Eugene 'Gene' Davis: They're going to have to re-enter the atmosphere and set her down in manual mode.
    Sara Holland: No, no, no, that's impossible.
    Eugene 'Gene' Davis: Well, it's never happened before.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Frank and his wife were surprised, to say the least, when the NASA agents showed up.
  • The Casanova: Jerry is an unrepentant—and for his age, pretty successful—womanizer.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Double the pleasure, double the fun.
    • First, the whole point of the story. See Black Box. Frank apparently got involved in the Apollo Applications Program, and designed the guidance system for Skylab. That's what was used on the satellite that they need to repair so urgently. And he's the only one left alive that knows anything about it.
    • Second, their own skill as pilots, which proves early on to have not decayed much over time. It ultimately helps them through the Reentry Scare.
      • Hawk's landing technique of "tapping on the brakes a little bit". Hawk himself pulls this first in the flight training simulator, and Frank later copies it to land for real.
  • Christianity is Catholic: One character is ostensibly a Baptist minister, yet he ends up saying "Hail Mary, full of grace" once the mission in space is underway.
  • Cool Old Guy: A band of them. Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen!
  • Companion Cube: The hula-dancing Hawaiian girl dashboard ornament.
  • Contemplative Boss: When Gerson summons Corvin (Eastwood) and Hawkins (Jones) to his office after they have crashed yet another prototype, he stands with his back to them, looking out the window, and pointedly asks why he's seeing smoke in the distance.
  • Conveniently Close Planet: The satellite's boosters fire on a trajectory that conveniently gets to the moon - and quickly enough that Hawk's air doesn't run out.
  • Convenient Terminal Illness: Hawkins has pancreatic cancer, so he doesn't mind saving the world by taking a one-way trip to the moon.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: After getting into a fight the night before, both Frank and Hawk pass off their bruised faces to the flight director by claiming they slipped in the shower.
  • Death from Above: IKON - which is actually an orbiting nuclear missile silo.
  • Dirty Old Man: Jerry, again.
    • Frank actually gets this from his wife in their last moment of normal life before the NASA officials showed up. They briefly thought he was assaulting her before realizing they were a married couple playing around.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Hawk beats Frank back to the diner where Daedalus is meeting up by snaking between Frank's car and an oncoming semi at full speed on the freeway.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: While the other three cover their naked manhoods when the female doctor comes in, Jerry stands at attention with no shame, and she takes a rather noticeable look and is seemingly impressed.
    Tank: [looks down at what Jerry's packing] Nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Evil Is Petty: Bob Gerson is just plain mean to everyone, especially Frank, for no apparent reason other than his own bitterness. All of the action at the climax happens because he and Glance keep the fact that the IKON satellite is a Kill Sat (a fact that means that if the team can't pull off the mission because of this lack of information a huge chunk of Earth will suffer a nuclear apocalypse) just because they... don't like anybody else and/or they want the glory.
    • In addition, when The Reveal is made, Gerson throws General Vostov under the bus. In return, Vostov reveals that the Soviet Union got the guidance system by stealing it directly from Gerson.
  • Fan Disservice: Had this been the same actors 30 years ago, the nude scene in the doctor's office would have had women whistling. Now it's just a bunch of naked old guys.
  • Foreshadowing: Both Frank and flight director Eugene Davis don't buy for a second Bob's explanation that the Russian communication satellite is too big for the Space Shuttle to bring home safely, and that Bob doesn't know how an ancient guidance system ended up on a Russian satellite during the Cold War. The Blatant Lies are revealed to be that the "communication satellite" is a nuclear-missile-loaded Kill Sat that will set off if it decays back to Earth while active.
  • Freudian Slip: After accidentally walking on Hawk in the locker room, Sara remarks that "Gene moved up the stimulator—simulator run".
  • Genre Shift: From a light-hearted comedy to a compelling space drama, just over half way through. Handled quite well.
  • Get Out!: Frank throws out Sara and Ethan when he finds out they work for Bob Gerson.
    • More specifically, he throws them out when he learns who they work for AND Ethan gets it in his head to insult Frank in his own home. Sara is obviously embarrassed by Ethan's actions and Frank has no issue working with her a couple scenes later.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The Bittersweet Ending: after Hawk manually ignites the rockets on the Russian satellite and "pilots" it to the moon, finally getting to make the journey. The closing moments show him lying in the wreckage gazing down on the Earth as Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" plays.
  • Husky Russkie: Genral Vostov fits this trope pretty damn well.
  • Idiot Ball: Ethan Glance grabs it, tucks it under his arm, and runs all the way to the end zone with assistance of Gerson.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: When Hawk asks out Sara after she walked in on him naked:
    Hawk: Sara? I'm gonna take you out for a beer.
    Sara: [dryly] I'll be needing one.
  • Informed Ability: Ethan's case in particular; he states to hold two degrees from MIT and is claimed to be one of the best astronauts in the space program; too bad that he does absolutely nothing during the film to prove its truthfulness. All he does is make the mission almost fail with his recklessness.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: Averted, most impressively in the final scene mentioned above, where all we see is Hawk's reflective faceplate - arguably making it more poignant.
  • Ironic Echo: At the start of the film, Bob Gerson agrees to rescue the Russian satellite, and Sara insists it's a waste of time and money. Bob tells her, "Sara, you're one hell of an engineer, but you dont know jack-shit about politics. Helping the Russians save face is an act of good faith. How can you put a price on that?" A couple minutes later, when Sara and Bob are examining the specs of the Russian satellite in question, Sara tells Bob, "Bob, you're a damn fine politician, but you don't know jack-shit about engineering."
  • Jerkass: Bob Gerson, played magnificently by James Cromwell.
  • Kill Sat: Played both ways — the IKON satellite is a massive piece of equipment which will not completely burn out if it enters the atmosphere, meaning that unless the team goes to keep it in orbit it will fall and wreck something on impact... and then it turns out that Gerson "conveniently" decided to keep secret the truth told to him by the Russians, which is that IKON is a nuclear missile silo that they placed in space during the Cold War; to make matters worse, it operates on a Dead Man's Switch that would interpret it falling out of orbit as evidence that it was attacked and launch its entire payload at once.
  • Leno Device: Team Daedalus take a break from their training at NASA to make an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. The actors appeared in character on the show and it doubled as promotion for the film.
  • Missed the Call: Team Daedalus never got to go into space back in the day because NASA decided to use chimps instead.
  • Mistaken for Related: When recruiting Jerry, Frank talks to a young redhead and refers to Jerry as her father. Jerry then kisses her smack on the lips, revealing that she's his girlfriend.
  • Monochrome Past: The 1958-set opening scene.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: a non-human example (so it may be another trope), but IKON, for a communications satellite, is a gigantic and intimidating thing. Granted, it's not really a communications satellite…
  • Naked People Are Funny: All four must strip naked for their physical examination. When the (female) doctor enters the room, they cover their private parts in embarrassment, except Jerry who allows her to get an eyeful. And she obviously likes what she sees.
  • Older and Wiser: Averted. Older the protagonists may be, but they still behave, by their own admission, like "kids who never grew up".
    • Frank is bitter over having been screwed over by Gerson and has a Hair-Trigger Temper.
    • Hawk is an adrenaline junkie who treats everything like a (friendly) competition.
    • Jerry is a confirmed bachelor who is still scoring with women young enough to be his granddaughters.
    • Tank is probably the most mature of the team, but even he has the occasional Manchild moment.
  • Overturned Outhouse: In his backstory, Hawk did this to an outhouse he thinks has his romantic rival. Instead, the occupant was the girl he was smitten with. He caps the story off with "I married her".
  • Pet the Dog: Bob Gerson seems genuinely sad and sorry when he tells Corvin about Hawkins' pancreatic cancer.
  • Pragmatic Hero: As part of the stipulation of being allowed to fly the mission, Daedalus must pass all the usual astronaut physical exams. Jerry and his Coke-bottle-glasses is so Blind Without 'Em, he finds a practical way to successfully pass the eye exam (while hitting on the doctor): he memorizes the eye chart while wearing his glasses and awaiting his turn. The viewer can even notice him studiously committing the chart to memory while Frank and Hawk go first.
    Jerry: Just going to do the bottom three lines (camera shows Jerry's vision completely blurring the chart, rapidly runs through the letters) think oysters would be too much for the first date?
    Doctor: [astonished, handing Jerry his glasses] You have 20/10 vision, Captain!
    Jerry: Oh these are just for 'looking at you, kid'. [smiles at her]
    [Jerry walks by Frank]
    Jerry: I may be blind, but my memory is perfect. [walks off rattling off the letters again]
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Corvin insists on reuniting Team Daedalus and going into space as the price for his co-operation, so NASA sends out two people to round them up.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Although he isn't as happy as sending up four senior citizens as Bob is, flight director Eugene Davis is otherwise professional during the mission and offers sympathies to Sara when Hawk takes his one-way trip to the moon with IKON.
  • Reentry Scare: Comes together with a Chekhov's Skill during the earlier flight simulator scene: in a some variety of Technician Versus Performer, or Good Old Ways, or any of the related tropes, the Team Daedalus manage to "land" the "Space Shuttle", but only after the computer is disabled and they have to do it manually. The younger generation astronauts find this nigh-unbelievable.
  • Retired Badass: The whole of Team Daedalus.
  • Running Gag: Whenever the four men catch wind of an old peer from someone, they ask how that person is doing. The response is usually that they're dead. Lampshaded by Hawk at one point (paraphrased):
    "Have you noticed that everyone's dead lately?"
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: First Bob, then Hawk, with the latter only possible because of the former.
  • Shoulders-Up Nudity: During the physical exam, Team Daedalus is naked, but the camera stays above their waists when they're shot from the front.
  • Truth in Television: The story was inspired by John Glenn's 1998 space flight, when he was 77. Frank namechecks Glenn when he's trying to convince Bob to let Daedalus take the job.
  • invoked Technology Marches On: Ethan Glance can't understand the guidance system on Ikon. Jerry points out why Frank and his team need to fix it, they were trained on the technology and Ethan wasn't.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Hawk and Frank. They're always fighting.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: A young man wants a ride on Hawk's bi-plane for his birthday. Everyone, from Hawk to the audience (but not his girlfriend, thanks to Hawk), learns that the kid does not have a strong stomach.
  • Wham Line: "One of your team didn't pass his physical. One of your team has cancer."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never get to know what happened to the younger astronauts, Ethan and Roger, after they were ejected from the shuttle during the emergency landing. It's been stated that being ejected would give them about a 20% chance of survival, not counting the injuries they already suffered. It's also unclear what will happen to Ethan if he manages to survive, after his recklessness almost caused the mission to fail, putting in jeopardy the lives of the crew along with those of who knows how many lives should have IKON launched its missiles.
  • Younger Than They Look:
    • Tommy Lee Jones is 11 years younger than Donald Sutherland, 17 than Clint Eastwood, and 19 than James Garner, yet is portrayed as being around the same age bracket as them (though he is the youngest member of Team Daedalus). Jones was 54 when starring in a film where there was a Running Gag of all the leads' old friends having passed away from age and the like.
    • The film opens with the test pilots in 1958; Tommy Lee Jones was 12 at the time in real life.


Video Example(s):


Fly me to the moon

The movie begins with USAF pilot "Hawk" Hawkins singing "Fly Me To The Moon" as he dreams of going into space, the climax involves his heroic sacrifice to ride a nuclear missile platform out of Earth's orbit to manually detonate the nukes a safe distance away (a one-way trip), and ends with him finally having reached the Moon, as Frank Sinatra sings "Fly Me To The Moon."

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

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Main / Bookends

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