Four veteran actors come together to make this story of a senior citizen space voyage directed by Clint Eastwood. In the hands of a lesser director the story could have easily swayed into an over-sentimental, two hour joke about getting old (of which there are still plenty), yet Eastwood makes this film as fun for the audience as it clearly was to make for those involved. Clint Eastwood stars as Frank Corvin the leader of team Daedalus which were a group of Air Force pilots in the 50’s who were the first to experiment with going into space before the formation of NASA. In an opening scene that boasts some impressive ageing special effects showing Clint to look no older than he did on his days involved with Rawhide, we see him and his co-pilot ‘Hawk’ break the height record, though unfortunately at the expense of their ship. Both pilots are forced to eject which results in a fist-fight on the ground between Corvin and Hawk as apparently this was not the first ship that has been lost due to Hawks overzealousness behind the controls. They are reprimanded by their captain and told that instead of any Daedalus crew member, the first American to go up into space will be a chimp.
Flash-forward to present day and NASA now needs the help of retired Corvin and the rest of the original team Daedalus to repair a satellite with some outdated technology which was designed by Corvin. The technology is on a Russian satellite which has started to decay and needs to be placed back into orbit as letting it fall into the earth’s atmosphere is apparently not an option.
Apparently when Eastwood was first told the story he had trouble thinking that the audience would be able to believe that these senior citizens would be able to fly yet when the U.S. Senator John Glenn who was considerably older than Eastwood at the time was allowed up into a shuttle, the movie was a go.
Getting the story out of the way though any excuse for Clint and the rest of the actors, James Garner as ‘Tank Sullivan’, Donald Sutherland as Jerry O’Neil and Tommy Lee Jones as ‘Hawk’, to hang out is a recipe for fun. The first half of the film involves Corvin rounding up his team members who have not seen each other for years and proving to NASA that a group of over-60’s are capable of passing the strenuous tests required for space travel.
Seeing each character told that Frank was able to convince NASA to reunite team Daedalus for one last trip into space, it is not difficult to imagine that the actors themselves would have had similar reactions when they told they would be involved in a movie with each other with Eastwood at the helm. James Garner is the first one we meet, who has some acting experience with Eastwood from 40 years previously with no chemistry being lost over the years. Tank Sullivan has now become a priest, if a slightly bumbling one who is still able of operating machinery on the ship.
The second character is the woman chasing Jerry O’Neil whom when we first get a glimpse of in the 50’s is looking at a Playboy magazine, and it appears his womanizing habits have died hard. Jerry is now responsible for building roller coasters which is what we see him riding on when Corvin catches up with him. He makes a remark that certain loops are going to cause someone to pass out if they are not slowed down, foreshadowing his toughness and the training that will be required of him later in the film.
Saving the best for last in what is the most entertaining introduction of a character in the film, Tommy Lee Jones’ Hawk now flies airplanes for daredevils looking for more thrills than is usually offered in a flight. A youngster who is looking to get the “sh*t scared out of him” winds up losing his lunch up in the air, which Hawk is still cleaning off when Corvin tells him about the mission. The dynamic between Hawk and Corvin is brilliant with Corvin still having feelings of resentment because he believes Hawk is the reason they never made it up into space.
The first half of the film is largely played for laughs with the team constantly being the source of ‘old people’ jokes yet time and time again prove that they can withstand the training of any astronaut member who is in their supposed ‘prime.’ The four of them are dubbed as ‘The Ripe Stuff’ by newspaper tabloids and become celebrities much to the delight of NASA who are now receiving extra funding as a result of their new popularity.
Frank Corvin butt’s heads with Bob Gerson, played by James Cromwell who was the man responsible for making sure that none of them made it into space in the 50’s replacing them with a chimp and is now desperate for all their help. Where he would prefer that Frank would simply train a younger, fitter astronaut to work out the system Frank tells him that in the time frame they have all they are going to get is him and Gerson can take it or leave it, forcing him to agree. James Cromwell judges his performance perfectly playing the snide, vengeful “bad” character of the film whom Frank Corvin strives to prove wrong throughout the film.
The CGI special effects of the latter half of the film, which Eastwood was able to get advice on from none other than George Lucas, are truly astounding especially considering Eastwood’s lack of experience in this particular field. The set created for their shuttle and the satellite which they are sent to repair are wholly convincing with an unexpected amount of tension being injected into the final half-hour of the movie. Frank realizes upon inspecting the satellite that it has several nuclear warheads onboard which would be automatically set off were the satellite to reach earths atmosphere again. It is revealed that the reason Corvin’s design is now on a satellite owned by the Russians is because a KGB agent stole the notes from Gerson.
Due to a young crew member escaping and trying to fix the satellite on his own the satellite crashes into the shuttle and begins to float away knocking unconscious the only other youthful astronaut leaving it up to the geriatrics to disarm the nuclear warheads and return the shuttle to earth. During a heartbreaking scene Hawk, having recently been given the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, decides that he will guide the satellite and sacrifice himself firing the warheads off into deep apace. Eastwood takes care not to make this scene too schmaltzy as the remaining members of the Daedalus crew watch their friend fly away for the last time.
The relationship between Hawk and Frank is the heart and force that drives the movie forward. Their feelings about each other are pushed to breaking point when they are both involved in a bar fight where old resentful feelings come to the surface about who was responsible for them getting kicked out of the Air Force, yet by the time Corvin learns of Hawk’s cancer they have become too bonded to break up the team. The final shot of the film showing that Hawk died doing what he loved and dreamt of doing for the last 40 years, walking on the moon, is the perfect ending to this heart-warming tale of friendship and respect persevering over countless years.