Favorite SP Critics

"The Astronaut Farmer"
Dir: Mark and Mike Polish

Patricia Ducey

The Astronaut Farmer is the first mainstream film from twin brothers and indie collaborators Mark and Mike Polish (North Fork). Astronaut Farmer is more accessible and perhaps less interesting than Sundance hit North Fork but satisfies as a family film adults can enjoy as well, if they don’t look too closely.

Billy Bob Thornton delivers a graceful performance as Charles Farmer, Texas rancher and astronaut wannabe, making a final attempt to achieve his dream against all odds—by building a rocket ship in his barn.

Yes, that would be a real rocket ship. Because Charles is actually a real NASA program veteran who dropped out of astronaut training years ago because of a family tragedy. He doesn’t want his dream to die like his father’s did; he wants and needs to teach his own kids a different lesson. “You’d better know what you want to do before somebody else knows it for you,” he warns his son. Virginia Madsen lights up the screen as his incredibly supportive wife, who manages a sunny disposition, a waitress gig, three kids, and a mortgage-laden, stargazing husband with the forbearance of a saint—while her father (Bruce Dern) has the good sense to die and leave them money at precisely the right moment. See what I mean about not looking too closely?

The real weakness here is that Astronaut Farmer flits between fantasy and family drama without committing to either. Thornton’s character reveals so little that we simply don’t get him. If he’s a regular guy, why doesn’t he just go back to NASA and work there instead of, incredibly, building a spaceship? If he’s an eccentric, we don’t see it in the pastoral normalcy of his life.

What’s interesting, though, about The Astronaut Farmer is that it plays with same theme as The Lives of Others: the eternal struggle of the state versus the individual. As Farmer’s rocket nears completion, he sets out to purchase the requisite tonnage of rocket fuel that, in a post 9/11 world, soon brings a convoy of black FBI SUVs roaring onto his ranch. Farmer’s foils in this endeavor are the various and sundry bureaucrats and social workers and Homeland Security agents who fuss and fume about the propriety of his flight plan, and isn’t it really a WMD, and what about those mortgages?

But eventually Farmer proves that a maverick and an optimist can and must fight city hall. He’s a man who owns his own soul, even if he has to fight for it, just like his filmic predecessors, Mr. Smith and George Bailey, did. Even Georg Dreyman of Lives of Others inherits the mantle—he could just as well have uttered the movie’s tag line of “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing.” Albeit in a more lighthearted vein, the optimism and courage portrayed in this film make it well worth a look, especially if you want to teach someone too young for The Lives of Others an important (and painless) civics lesson.

-- Patricia Ducey

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