THE ASTRONAUT FARMER
Director: Michael Polish
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Thieriot, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Bruce Willis
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material, peril and language)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 2/23/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
The down home, good ol' boy hero of The Astronaut Farmer should by all means be subject to psychiatric therapy. But he has a dream, dagnabbit, and ain't nobody going to stand in his way, no matter how ludicrous, expensive, and potentially downright suicidal that dream might be. The dream: to build a homemade rocket and orbit the Earth. Yes, it is ludicrous, the title brings about weird images of a man growing space travelers, and the whole thing fits entirely in a predetermined formula, but The Astronaut Farmer somehow bypasses all of these barriers and misperceptions and is a small gem revolving around a straightforward theme. The film is quirky but sincere—predictable but genuinely inspiring. Written by the Polish brothers, Mark and Michael, and directed by the latter brother, this is a film that requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief, but if you give into its crazy-happy attitude, the film tugs the right strings. And it does so the careful way, by developing its characters and relationships and making them the impetus for pushing its simple but still universal and affecting theme. Sure, characters spout inspirational lines left and right, but its warm, cozy, and sometimes renegade vibe is utterly contagious.
Deep in the heart of Texas, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is dressed in a flight suit, riding his horse to retrieve a calf. He wears the suit to the breakfast table with his family; they think nothing of it. He goes to his son Shepard's (Max Thieriot) class for career day, and the teacher is pleased at Farmer's dedication to inspire the kids with make-believe dress-up. This isn't playing pretend, though, and Farmer is soon meeting an Internet contact who might be able to get him 10,000 pounds of fuel for the rocket he has been building in his barn for who knows how long. While obtaining the fuel is going to be a problem, an even bigger one arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on his farm in 30 days. His wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) supports her husband's desire to go to space, but then again, he keeps her in the dark about the surely inevitable foreclosure. The threat gets to him, and not in a fiscally responsible way. He realizes its time to make his dream a reality quickly and pulls his kids out of school to prepare for their role as his mission control. Problem is the feds have discovered his attempts to get mass quantities of fuel and put the stopper on his plan.
Farmer has issues, no doubt about it. He was on track to become an astronaut, but a family tragedy and his own sense of responsibility ended that. Now the responsibility is on his family, whom we might think are merely humoring him about going into space when they play a game about what each of them would bring to the moon until the extent of Farmer's dedication is revealed. An uncredited Bruce Willis appears as an Air Force colonel and former astronaut sent to determine how serious Farmer is about going into space. The answer: dead serious. There's a complete rocket in the barn, and the colonel is frank about the government's reason for trying to keep him out of space. Billions of dollars are in the budget of NASA, and if a guy in the middle of nowhere can launch his own out of his own pocket, they'll look stupid—and squandering tax money. The Polishes' aren't too kind to the government here. A couple of FBI agents are sent to watch the Farmer farm around the clock, questioning the Farmers' younger children while they jump on their beds and accompanying the family to the carnival (where Farmer rents the rocket ride for his farm, perhaps out of spite but probably just for fun).
How to bypass the pressure? Call the media, of course. There's an intrinsic commentary on the modern news culture here with the way every outlet saturates the market with Farmer's story, and later how quick they are to turn on their pay dirt if things go awry. Those pesky government folks will not go away, though, and Jacobson (J.K. Simmons), the head of the FAA, oversees a committee hearing to determine whether or not to grant Farmer the necessary clearance for a private space launch. When asked by the CIA representative how they can be sure he's not building a WMD, Farmer gives the best line in the film: "If I was building a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn't be able to find it." Yes, he gets to speak on his own behalf, with dialogue like "Somewhere along the line, we stopped believing we could do anything," and "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing." It might sound corny—and it is—but it's neither the first nor the last time. His father-in-law (Bruce Dern) notes that "a man deserves a second chance," and Audrey says about her support for his pipe dream, "It's not mandatory; it's love."
What makes this all work beyond clichéd maxims is the Polish brothers' and actors' sincerity. We can see the turns of the script a mile away, but the story's conceit is so outlandish and its earnestness so lacking irony, the film is completely disarming. Billy Bob Thornton helps a lot, too, making Farmer a kind of rural Everyman with wide eyes but an optimism that can only come from someone with serious psychiatric problems. Virginia Madsen seems a one-note character in Audrey's undying support for her husband, but when she does inevitably discover the family's financial trouble, she shows the other side of it, the constant grappling that brings her to that encouragement. At one point she rhetorically questions her vow regarding sickness and health. Mental health must be included, because she knows her husband's crazy. Things start on a slide, and the film is wise enough to explore what happens when a dream dies.
It might sound like the movie becomes a downer, but all that's merely a roadblock. You can't keep a good man down, which is an appropriate cliché for the film although one not directly stated here. That's the thing about clichés and formula: It's all in how they're used. The Astronaut Farmer, with its big heart, actual care for its characters, and a story far-fetched enough to be fantasy but still rooted in humanity, uses them but is not defined by them.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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