Trouble in orbit? Send in geezers

Astronauts stand high among our real-life superheroes, and movies like "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13" have done accordingly well at the box office.

But those pictures seem a bit dated, and we haven't exactly been flooded with more contemporary treatments of the subject. A reason is that the golden age of astronautics - the first orbital flights, the historic moon landings - lies largely in the past, replaced by the more routine missions of today's shuttle crews.

Who in Hollywood could make a story about NASA seem topical and original?

Clint Eastwood, that's who.

And he proves it in "Space Cowboys," the new comedy-drama-adventure-romance-buddy picture blasting off today.

It's an entertaining movie with intriguing twists. But successful as it is, the film bears out the difficulty of making the US space program seem exciting enough for Hollywood to take notice.

To give his astronauts a charge of freshness and novelty, Eastwood makes them as old and persnickety as the movie stars who play them - and resurrects the cold war for good measure, complete with a shifty Russian general and a high-flying nuclear secret.

The story centers on Team Daedalus, a quartet of hotshot test pilots who reached their peak in the 1950s, then went their separate ways. Cut to the present day, when this group is just a hazy memory - until a vintage Russian satellite shows signs of losing its orbit, and a NASA administrator decides the best repairman would be the Daedalus veteran who designed its guidance system.

This turns out to be Eastwood's character, of course, and he agrees to leave retirement if his old teammates (Donald Sutherland, James Garner, and Tommy Lee Jones) can join in the adventure. This touches off some mildly suspenseful questions: Do these likable geezers still have the right stuff? And what's really wrong with that satellite, anyway? How did it acquire an American guidance system when the Soviets launched it during the cold war? Why don't the authorities just let it crash into the ocean, or send an ordinary crew to haul it back, or let the Russian military clean up its own mechanical mess?

The answers to these conundrums are as predictable as you might expect, but "Space Cowboys" is fun to watch anyway.

At a time when most Hollywood productions pander to the youth market, Eastwood and company have made a whole movie about old things: aging guys, outdated politics, and outmoded equipment, not to mention a string of old-fashioned clichs sprinkled throughout.

What keeps it enjoyable is amiable acting and Eastwood's peppery directing style, never showy but always smooth and lively, and mostly free of the age-based condescension that sours many movies about the elderly.

It's not "Grumpy Old Astronauts," and that alone is cause for gratitude.

Will young moviegoers flock to a movie about adventurers old enough to be their grandfathers? Watch the box office. But grandfathers will have a ball, as will Eastwood admirers of every age.

*Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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