To say that they don’t make movies like this anymore — splendidly, quietly angry in a folksy, old-fashioned kind of way — is to prove its point, that we seem to have lost something in the American spirit in our era of overlording corporatism and stifling groupthink. Over at Film.com, I called this “The Right Stuff meets Field of Dreams,” and that’s not an unfair characterization, but really, the film The Astronaut Farmer is most like is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, full of fire in its belly for the injustice of the basic qualities of independence and integrity and ingenuity that have been so misplaced that we’ve even forgotten we’ve misplaced then.
Charles Farmer, see, he used to be an astronaut-in-training before he dropped out to save the family ranch in Texas. (Yeah, it’s a bit cutesy and obvious, that name… but then so was “Mr. Smith.”) But he still has the hankerin’ for space, so he’s building a rocket in his barn and has every intention of taking it on an orbital jaunt around the planet. This ain’t the kind of movie that strives for an excess of plausibility, even if it does make the point of letting us know that Charlie was not just a would-be rocket jockey but an aerospace engineer as well, so he knows what he’s doing. But The Astronaut Farmer — from the sublime team of Mark and Michael Polish, who made the funky Northfork and Twin Falls Idaho and here make a superb studio debut — doesn’t care so much whether Charlie’s project is actually achievable. The movie is in love with the exquisiteness of his ambition, with his daring to dream, and daring to try to make his dream happen.
But this is today, when we as a society have become paranoid and fearful and narrow-minded, and so The Astronaut Farmer can only be a bitter parable for the age of Homeland Security and onerous government regulation and the culture-wide clampdown on free-spiritedness. Backyard tinkerers must be terrorists; science is suspicious; eccentricity is almost criminal. But Billy Bob Thornton (School for Scoundrels, The Ice Harvest) — genially charming and geekily sexy here in a way that I’m not sure I ever expected of him — makes Charlie the best kind of American oddball, one not easily intimidated by The Man, even when The Man shows up in the guise of an old friend (a delightful cameo I won’t spoil). His reflexive sense of the inherent rightness of self-sovereignty is infectious: when his teenaged son (Max Thieriot: The Pacifier, Catch That Kid), his mission control, asks him, “You think they’re gonna let us go into outer space?” — the FAA is determined to stop his launch — we bristle with Charlie. “Let” him? Try and stop him.
The connection between the pioneering spirit that built the American West and the same one that seems to have faltered in the exploration of space comes together in the ticklishly bizarre imagery that opens the film, as Charlie rides out on horseback across his land to retrieve a lost calf… while wearing the salvaged silvery Apollo-era spacesuit he means to wear on his one-man mission. If I thought right then that the Polish brothers — they both write; Michael directs; Mark appears as an FBI agent — were taking another journey into the strange cinematic territory of their first indie films, well, I was wrong (Charlie is heading to his kids’ school that morning for a show-and-tell of the suit, it turns out). But there’s plenty of enchanting humor — “You smell like the rocket,” Charlie’s wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen: The Number 23, A Prairie Home Companion), complains, though not entirely unamusedly, when he climbs into bed one night after puttering around in the barn — and sneaky irony: the whole film, if you could reduce it down to a single moment, is like the self-deprecating snorts Charlie gives whenever he passes the empty billboard on the road to town that announces “space available.”
Feel-good? Of course it is. But it’s not an easy feel-good — it’s a challenge to make your own feel-good. “There are no stop signs up there,” Charlie says at one point, and there are layers of freedom and responsibility wrapped up in that one obvious truth, layers of danger and opportunity, and a reminder that the safety that comes from curling up in a ball or hiding your head in the sand is a dull and uninspiring kind of safe, and not the kind of thing we used to embrace so unreservedly.