CAPSULE: This film may involve rockets and exploration, but it should play better with a non-technical audience. If somewhat overly familiar and contrived at times this is a likable Capra-esque story of a farmer who believes he has the smarts to build his own low-cost orbital rocket. He finds he has to fight the system to achieve his dream. The view of small town life will be pleasing to some and cloyingly sweet to others. On balance this is just okay entertainment. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
THE ASTRONAUT FARMER got a lot of the details very nicely. My problems with the film are merely fundamental. It is the premise of this film that one man--with nominal help from his wife and son Shepherd--has the intellectual and mechanical abilities and stamina to build in his barn his own orbital rocket, and he believes he can fly it himself. Before one can enjoy this film one has to make that great leap of faith. I am not an expert on the subject, but I know that it would take several lifetimes and a lot more money than a Texas farmer could possibly devote to the project. A human can do some pretty amazing things, but it very difficult to believe that one man has all the ability and resources that that Charlie Farmer would need to accomplish his goal and to make this film make sense. If he has that ability, he would not have to be a poor Texas farmer. Selling his expertise he could raise money for his project a lot more effectively than he is doing by farming. Once one accepts the fantasy world of this film, the story is pleasant enough, but one has to suspend a great deal of disbelief to accept this story on its own terms.
Billy Bob Thornton plays the aptly name Charlie Farmer. His name was chosen to make the title work, I suspect. That name is the first of many contrivances of this film. Farmer--even his wife calls him by his surname--is a fanatic about space flight. He was an aerospace engineer and an astronaut candidate, but personal problems got in the way of his dream. He had to quit the real space program only to start his own personal space program. He has such a mania for space flight that he works his farm wearing an astronaut flight suit. (Is that even possible?) At first he seems to the viewer to be entirely off the wall. But he is building his own variant on an Atlas missile, not unlike one from the Mercury Program. His plan is to launch himself from his barn into orbit. His dream has required all the money from his farm, and it driving his family into bankruptcy. He is oblivious to the pain he is causing as he single-mindedly seeks his goal. Goals are very important to him. As he tells a stranger, "You better know what you want to do before someone knows it for you." Yet he insists that that his family share his dream rather than have dreams of their own. His wife Audie (played by Virginia Madsen) and family still love and support him, but he seems to care little for the sacrifices he is asking them to make for his private goal.
This is the most commercial film that Michael Polish has directed. Previously he made the somewhat surrealist films TWIN FALLS IDAHO and NORTHFORK. He co-authored ASTRONAUT FARMER with his twin brother Mark. The two co-produced and Mark also appears in the film as an FBI agent. One does not know quite what to feel about Charlie Farmer. One has to admire his tenacity in accomplishing his goal, but he pursues it to the point of psychosis and requires that his family sacrifice just about all to a dream they will be able to share in only vicariously. This makes him a not very sympathetic character. At the same time the government officials that are trying to impose themselves to try to stop him have what seem like very valid concerns about Farmer's project. During the course of the film Farmer repeatedly and callously endangers people's lives without giving a second thought. On one level this can be read as a sort of Frank Capra story of a man determined to fulfill his dream, but the film also has a very dark side. Farmer's town all seem to know weird old Charlie, but also seem to let him get away with some very impulsive, unpleasant, and anti-social behavior. Some of his actions make little sense.
One sees little jokes that have been put into the film along the way. FBI agents all look a lot alike in black suits and wearing walrus moustaches. (Usually they appear more clean-cut in films.) The café where Audie works is called CALF-A. There are noticeable homages to THE RIGHT STUFF, including the tying of the space mythos to the cowboy mythos. The supporting cast includes a near totally redundant role for Bruce Willis as an ex-astronaut sent by the government to check out Charlie's space project. Also appearing are Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, and J. K. Simmons.
It is hard to tell if this film is intended as the same sort of exercise in surrealism that NORTHFORK was or if it is intended as an inspirational tale of determination or if it is simply a parable. If any of this is true it is not entirely successful. As an interesting failure it is at least worth a look. I rate THE ASTRONAUT FARMER a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0469263/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper