If you want to get a feel for the whole astronaut experience find some footage of the first moon landing with Walter Cronkite’s emotional coverage. Then see “The Right Stuff”, “Apollo 13” and finish it off with “Astronaut Farmer”.
Billy Bob Thorton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce Willis.
In today’s age of instant stardom it’s not easy for a kid to find a hero. But in the 60s the choice was simple. Of course we loved our pop stars like Elvis and the Fab Four. But there wasn’t a boy who didn’t dream of being John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. Though set in the present day, “Astronaut Farmer” could easily be mistaken for a 50s or 60s period piece, and in some ways it harkens back to the days of Frank Capra films like “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “Meet John Doe” when a common man takes his dream into the face of enormous adversity.
Charles Farmer is anything but common. However, Billy Bob Thornton’s understated, unassuming and seemingly unaffected portrayal makes you wonder, even when the film opens with Farmer on a horse, in a spacesuit, herding cattle. And there lies the charm of “Astronaut Farmer”. As a rancher and family man Farmer appears to carry out both very well. Along with the cattle he has a loving wife (Virginia Madsen) and three adoring children. Even the sheriff likes him in spite of Farmer destroying bank property because his banker demands payment on a huge loan. And the banker even likes him! But they also doubt his sanity as he follows through on his plan to launch a rocket from the barn in his own backyard with his teenage son running mission control out of an Airstream trailer. What’s amazing is that the launch quickly appears to be totally plausible. And we really, really want to buy into his dream. So much so that even when he begins to sacrifice his own family for that dream, we still root him on, hoping beyond hope that it can somehow work out.
There are a few over-the-top moments, most notably the FBI’s and NASA’s heavy-handed tactics used on Farmer. (Haven’t we seen enough of federal agents in dark suits and sunglasses being caught looking foolish.) And Bruce Willis’ appearance as an old astronaut buddy is very un-noteworthy. But, fortunately, a pretty good script plus a performance that only a few actors could pull off without appearing corny turns a possibly antiquated story into a winning film. Thornton has already saved some mediocre films from being really bad films (“Bandits”, “Bad News Bears”). So it’s only natural that he brings this one up a notch.
If you want to get a feel for the whole astronaut experience find some footage of the first moon landing with Walter Cronkite’s emotional coverage. Then see “The Right Stuff”, “Apollo 13” and finish it off with “Astronaut Farmer”. Sure, the last one is fictional (though the other two take some extremely fictional liberties). But “Astronaut Farmer” reminds us why astronauts are America’s greatest heroes—in spite of what one very confused, diaper-wearing, lovesick space-case does.
Reviewer : Tim Basham