Americans are a race of outlaw dreamers, at least if you believe our movies - from Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to pretty much any Kevin Costner vehicle. Whether they want to reform the government or beat Apollo Creed or get into ballet school like that girl in Flashdance, they'll defy all the expert naysayers to do it.
In The Astronaut Farmer, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) dreams bigger than most. He wants to orbit the Earth, and he wants to do it on his own terms. Farmer is a small-time Texas rancher with a raft of mortgages on his home and a homemade rocket in his barn. He's not a complete kook - years ago, he was accepted into the space program, but he dropped out to come home after his dad died. Farmer's dream of floating in space endured, though, and now, with his teenage son as mission control, he wants to fulfill it DIY-style.
It's a perfect setup for a pseudo-Spielberg inspirational family film, circa 1985. But The Astronaut Farmer is more eccentric than that. It's clearly a labor of love for director Michael Polish and his twin brother Mark, best known for the 1999 twin-themed indie Twin Falls, Idaho. The Polishes co-wrote the script for this film, and their respective daughters Jasper and Logan appear as Farmer's kids.
The Polish brothers have a knack for recreating the texture of a small town, where everyone thinks Farmer is nuts but secretly wants him to succeed. They give the movie a countercultural subtext, too - more libertarian than leftist. When Farmer tries to buy 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel over the Internet, the feds descend on his ranch: As his lawyer friend points out, the Patriot Act allows them to do "whatever they damn well please."
The media adopt the "space cowboy" as their flavor of the week, and the FAA agrees to rule on his proposed rocket launch. But a friend who's now a "real" astronaut, played by Bruce Willis, warns Farmer, "It's all about money" - NASA doesn't want private citizens making it look "stupid." When Farmer appears before the FAA, he suggests that American imperialism now extends even into space. Asked to confirm that his rocket isn't a WMD, he quips, "If I was building a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn't be able to find it."
But, one might object, there's a reason the government's in charge of the space program. Launching a rocket is no easy task, and things can go wrong in very ugly ways. The Astronaut Farmer never quite convinces us that one guy can build a viable spacecraft from scrap metal, though it may make us willing to suspend our disbelief.
The film's biggest problem is the handling of Farmer's family life. While the kids, especially the young Polishes, are natural on-screen, the script doesn't give them personalities beyond being cheerleaders for their dad. Farmer's wife (Virginia Madsen) frets over whether she should support her husband's dream when it could easily leave her kids fatherless. In the end, though, she decides it's worth it, cooing, "Without the rocket, we're just another dysfunctional family."
Better a dad who might crash and burn - literally - than a couch potato who's safe at home? That's a pretty provocative, and intriguing, suggestion. Too bad The Astronaut Farmer can only resolve the questions it raises about the price of dreams - and liberty - with an ending that's pure Hollywood fluff.