Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Astronaut Farmer

The Astronaut Farmer (2006) is one of those American fairy tales about dreams and individualism and traditional values. The basic plot: Charles Farmer, a former astronaut in training who bailed out of the program when his father committed suicide, has never abandoned his dream of travel into space. He's a farmer somewhere in the middle of nowhere Texas. He's haunted by his father's death and believes that by killing himself his father accepted failure. By repeated borrowings from the local bank and credit extensions, he's found enough money to build a rocket that he plans to ride into space. He's $600,000 in debt, the local bank is about to foreclose, his wife doesn't realize that they may lose their farm.

The film's title reflects how the film joins together the farming crisis, disappearing American individualism, and Farmer's dream of becoming an astronaut. When he tries to buy fuel for his rocket, the bank refuses to give him another credit extension and threatens foreclosure. The government sends FBI and FAA and NASA security agents of one sort or another to investigate his plans and to threaten him. His wife threatens to leave him when she discovers the full extent of his indebtedness.

Charles Farmer is crazy. Only a crazy man would try to do what he does in the film. But the film argues that there needs to be room for crazy people and their dreams in our world. It also argues in a way that is more convenient to the story than purposeful that the modern world threatens the traditional values embodied by nuclear families and farms and small towns and individual dreams. At one point Charlie talks about how he used to remember being told as a boy that he could be anything in the world that he wanted to be. He remarks that "Somewhere along the line we stopped believing we could do anything. And if we don't have our dreams, we have nothing." Sappy, yes, but true to the spirit of the film. The film does suggest that government, corporations, agencies, institutionalized groups in general conspire against individuals and individualism. At one point, Charlie launches his rocket and it malfunctions, shooting across the landscape a few feet above the ground, endangering lives and property. The film doesn't really consider whether we are supposed to be accepting of such expressions of old-time American individuality.

This film reminded me of Field of Dreams (1989) and The World's Fastest Indian (2005). In ways it seems underwritten, sketched out rather than fully developed. This is perhaps part of its fairy tale quality

Billy Bob Thornton plays astronaut farmer Charles Farmer. Billy Bob basically plays the same Billy Bob in almost every film he's appeared in (with the exception of Sling Blade, 1996). His demeanor is always calm and irritable and reserved, and only the nuances and intonations differ from role to role. This is OK with me. He's effective in most of the roles he chooses. No one else could have played Bad Santa (2003).

Although there are unexpected twists and turns here, The Astronaut Farmer basically adheres to the formula that most films follow about loners and individuals intent on realizing their dreams. It also depends on your unwillingness to pursue certain questions to their conclusions—such as how could one man with limited resources know enough to build an operating rocket from junked spare parts and $600,000. However, we are not supposed to ask such questions, and if you care too much about the answers this film is not for you.

With a supporting cast of such folks as Virginia Marsden, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, and others, the film offers solid acting. Director Michael Polish, who also co-wrote the film, apparently believes like Charlie in making the pursuit of dreams a family effort—a number of his relatives appears in bit parts in the film.

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