Title: The Astronaut Farmer
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi
Director: Michael Polish
Screenwriters: Mark Polish, Michael Polish
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern
Charlie Farmer, the title character in The Astronaut Farmer, isn’t crazy. In any other film, a hero who wanted to stage a full-on rocket launch from his barn, with him in the cabin and his 15 year-old son at mission control in the neighboring trailer, wouldn’t — couldn’t — be taken seriously: he would be either ridiculous or tragically insane. But in the Polish Brothers’ surreal, beautiful paean to individuality and defiance, he’s not only dead serious, he’s a contender. Though mocked and dismissed at nearly every turn, Charlie’s quest is so clearly right that by the end of the first hour, I was ready to throw down — against the provincial, unimaginative podunk naysayers, against the FAA stiffs, against the bank, the media, the whole damn world that seems to line up against Charlie out of pure spite.
First, you have to see this rocket. It’s a real rocket — indeed, we learn, the work of a retired aerospace engineer — and not the sort of thing you would expect to show up on a middle-of-nowhere farm. It’s old-fashioned, no doubt missing most of the computerized amenities that grace today’s NASA efforts, but that only underscores the vitality of the film’s Charlie-against-the-world core, adding to the bald arrogance of the insistence that space travel be “left to the experts,” and the repugnant presumptuousness of the “rules and regulations” that purport to keep Charlie on the ground.
This description sounds, certainly, like the makings of a conventional inspirational vehicle, with a persistent dreamer taking on the odds and overcoming same to thunderous applause. But The Astronaut Farmer is a Polish Brothers film — they of Northfork and Twin Falls Idaho — which immediately suggests that it won’t blindly traffic in clichés. And indeed, though the movie retains some of the structure and a few of the elements of more earthbound cousins like October Sky, it lives just on the other side of the line between fantasy and reality, extending tentacles into our world but existing mostly in its own.
That much is obvious from the opening shots, which show Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton), in full astronaut regalia, riding a horse through some sand dunes to retrieve a lost calf. Like everything else here, the sequence is beautiful, quiet, vaguely anachronistic, and also a bit disquieting: The Astronaut Farmer often equates independence with loneliness (Charlie persists even when his otherwise loving, trusting family threatens to abandon him), a notion starkly introduced with the indelible images that begin the film.
Charlie is tolerated by the townspeople: he’s easygoing enough, and doesn’t bother anyone, even if he occasionally strolls into the local diner in a spaceman helmet. But when he tries to buy some ten thousand pounds of rocket fuel, all hell breaks loose: the bank threatens to foreclose; the FBI rides into town, with agents promising to watch him night and day; the FAA, led by a wonderfully smarmy J.K. Simmons, stages hearings in the local high school gymnasium; ultimately, the town contends with a descending swarm of media eager to turn Charlie’s story into a nationwide freakshow (Charlie shrewdly plays along, the better to embarrass his g-men foes).
The message is straightforward and eloquent: this is more than the story of a man who perseveres to make his seemingly impossible dream come true, but an outburst of rage against the Man, the system, the machine — everything Ryan Gosling’s Dan Dunne warned his Brooklyn middle school students about in Half Nelson. The distinction is crucial, because the film doesn’t deify Charlie Farmer — such an approach would have been tiresome in a screenplay so politically loaded (les freres Polish can’t resist a dig at the WMD fiasco). Instead, it’s less about Charlie than about the libertarian/rugged individualist ideal that he represents, with the villains standing in for governmental and collectivist incompetence, which inevitably translates into malicious face-saving and complete intolerance of any extra-societal action. The film is passionate and emphatic about this, enlisting genre conventions — the FAA hearing, the passionate plea to the bank owner — to score its points.
Of course, The Astronaut Farmer works on its most basic level as well — as a David Versus Multiple Goliaths crowdpleaser. It deftly plays down some important moments you’d expect to see underscored, but is also unafraid to go for broke when called-for: the shot of a classroom full of schoolchildren rushing to the window to see a rocket take off absolutely got me. And, as I’ve mentioned, the film defines its heroes and villains so well that it’s hard not to be absorbed and root for the good guy.
The movie, alas, is in trouble: the advertising pitches it as the sort of formulaic story it almost is but isn’t quite, which with a title like The Astronaut Farmer of course makes it look exceptionally silly. It is not, I assure you, silly in the least. What the Polish Brothers have done here is transplant the otherworldly feel and overt allegory of Northfork into a story that’s as familiar as that film’s was odd and inscrutable. The result is elegiac, gorgeous, and utterly enchanting.