It was Sergio Leone who best summarized the appeal of the actor he made internationally famous in "spaghetti Westerns" like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: "Michelangelo could look at a block of marble and see Moses; I look at Clint Eastwood and I see a block of marble." Eastwood's brand of flinty resoluteness, seemingly modeled upon John Wayne at his most taciturn, is a virtual oasis in the current cinematic sea of Method histrionics. (Paging Tom Cruise!) And, as one of our last links to the heyday of classical filmmaking, Eastwood is unique among active directors. Having come of age in a Tinseltown still accommodating to the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks, he actually understands the conventions that today's filmmaking intelligentsia are required to subvert. Eastwood has aged less gracelessly than one would expect from a media icon who made a fortune embodying the mythos of rugged individualism and The Way Things Still Ought to Be. Perhaps he's recognized that at 70 (albeit a robust 70) he can no longer project the invincibility that was the defining characteristic of his two best-remembered screen roles, the Man with No Name and Harry Callahan, the cop with no conscience. The dirty-minded fascism of the Dirty Harry series has given way in recent years to more complex meditations on the pursuit of happiness. In last year's fascinatingly cynical yet uneven True Crime, for example, he actually halts rather than carries out the execution of a suspected criminal. So has Dirty Harry lost his guts? No, just gained perspective. Eastwood's true theme, modified with varying degrees of success over the last decade, is mortality, or, more accurately, "obsolescence"--one of the watchwords of Space Cowboys. His 22nd film as a director is a soft-spoken, elegiac flag-waver enriched by a sober (if sometimes superficial) interrogation of this nation's continuing devaluation of its aging and infirm. Protagonist Frank Corvin (Eastwood) is one of the actor's gentler giants, nothing like William Munny, the cold-eyed killer of Unforgiven, or even Steve Everett, the philandering snake of True Crime. Corvin's a Good Man whom the world has passed by. Bitter at being passed over in 1958 for an inaugural U.S. space mission (detailed in a black-and-white prologue lensed expertly by Eastwood's longtime cinematographer, Jack N. Green), he tries to find a niche at the newly formed NASA but drops out some time after engineering an innovative satellite operating system. Fast-forward to the present: When the hardware he developed fails on an antiquated Russian satellite, Corvin recruits his Air Force test-pilot pals from the '50s--hot-tempered Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones), pick-up artist Jerry (Donald Sutherland) and affable Tank (James Garner, sadly underused)--to join him on an emergency salvage operation out beyond the Wild Blue Yonder.
The plot itself is devoid of many twists beyond the central one, which is relatively easy to see coming. (What, Corvin wonders, is his system doing on a Soviet satellite, and why is the commanding officer so desperate to repair it?) But Corvin's mission is but the pretext for Eastwood's mission, which is to underscore the dignified competence with which the foursome perform during their long-delayed excursion. There are thankfully few old-age jokes, though not even Eastwood could resist the lame diaper references his screenwriters have saddled him with. The true spirit of Space Cowboys is typified by the loving Panavision closeups of Hawk's face, craggy and pockmarked like the moon he so longed to visit, as he bravely faces down a potential death sentence: "What's a pancreas do, anyway," he asks with a wry smile, "besides give you cancer?" In a movie teeming with state-of-the-art computer effects, such moments make a compelling case for human antiquity.