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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


You can tell from the plot synopsis whether The Astronaut Farmer is for you. The truth is that if you are too cynical a person, you’re going to hate the sweetly fantastical quality of the film. You will find it sentimental and corny. On the other hand, if you consider yourself a dreamer, then this is right up your alley. While I admit often liking cynical movies (especially comedies), I nevertheless remain a sucker for stories about average guys who dare to follow their dreams. For that reason, among others, The Astronaut Farmer grabbed my attention from the start and pulled me in more and more as it went on.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Charlie Farmer, a Texas farmer (appropriately) who has long dreamed about going into space. Earlier in his life, he was on that path, working as an Air Force pilot and entering NASA’s astronaut training program. Family issues caused him to drop out before reaching his goal, but the passion has never faded. Using previously-gained knowledge, Charlie has raided aerospace junkyards and built a functional rocket in his barn. When it’s done, he fully intends to launch himself into space.

His family is actually kind of supportive of his desire. Wife Audie (Virginia Madsen) doesn’t actually believe he’ll ever lift off, but she doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm. His young daughters Stanley and Sunshine keep him company while he works on the rocket, and teenage son Shepard (Max Theriot) is in training to operate “Mission Control” from a silver gulf stream trailer out back. The only real hitch comes from the fact that Charlie has spent so much money on the rocket that now the family is in serious danger of losing their home. Audie encourages him to meet his financial responsibilities first and pursue his dream second.

Everyone in town knows about Charlie’s plan. Most of them greet it with with bemused condescension. The government is not nearly as casual; when they get wind of Charlie’s attempt to buy 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel, a team of FBI agents is dispatched to surround the farm and keep constant watch on the would-be astronaut. Officials from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration also show up attempting to block Charlie. Even a real astronaut (Bruce Willis) is called in to talk Charlie out of launching. The media hears about his intentions and they too arrive in Texas to camp out in front of the family farm. When it appears as though the government will do everything in its power to prevent the dream from becoming reality, Charlie only becomes more determined. He wants his children to grow up believing that they can accomplish whatever they put their minds to.

In all honesty, I expected The Astronaut Farmer to be one of those feel-good movies where the ending hinged on whether or not Charlie Farmer successfully launched his rocket. This is definitely a feel-good film, and the ending does indeed resolve the launch issue, but the story isn’t quite as straightforward as it appears. Something I didn’t expect happens around the midway point in the film. This simple little twist is part of what makes the film so special. It veers from what you expect, but it also provides the rest of the story with extra resonance. We come to understand that failing to go into space will be more than a disappointment for Charlie; it will be a tragedy.

In a modern kind of way, the movie reminds me of an old Frank Capra picture with Billy Bob Thornton taking the kind of idealistic everyman role that often went to Jimmy Stewart. Writing/directing brothers Mark and Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho) clearly draw on Capra’s work for tonal inspiration while still adding something contemporary and offbeat of their own (references to Homeland Security, the very sight of a space rocket resting inside a Texas barn, etc.). Their point is that, in today's society, it's become easier to ridicule the dreamer than it is to admire him. We've lost that ability to respect someone who is willing to take an all-or-nothing chance, and we need to get that back. The Astronaut Farmer is an admiring celebration of the quality that makes people want to prove that the impossible is possible, as well as a reminder that true heroism embodies this quality.

Thornton is superb in the key role, showing a side of his talents we have not yet glimpsed. As an actor, there is something I have always found undeniably unique about him. You wouldn’t expect him to play a simple everyman. However, that uniqueness is precisely what makes Charlie Farmer so authentic. Thornton completely sells you on the idea that Charlie believes it can be done. Virginia Madsen is also excellent as Audie. It’s easy to understand why the character would be upset about how the project negatively affects the family’s finances; the actress achieves the more difficult task of making you understand why she’s supportive. Her love for Charlie is so great that naysaying him would be unthinkable.

If you want to get too analytical, you can find a lot to criticize here. A guy building a working rocket in his barn? Preposterous! And while we’re at it, wouldn’t the feds arrest Charlie for even trying such a thing? Moreover, how could a 15-year-old boy with barely a high school education man the equipment needed to navigate a rocket around the Earth? That’s all true, but to be analytical would be to dismiss the movie’s spirit. It is more metaphorical than literal. It is about the biggest of the big dreamers – the guy who dares to think outside the box, the guy who isn’t afraid to fail if there’s even a miniscule chance that he might succeed. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay the movie is to say that it actively made me want to throw logic right out the window and surrender completely to the fantasy. Which is exactly what I did.

The Polish brothers give the film a visual style that straddles the line between realism and sheer fantasy, which helps you immerse yourself in Charlie’s journey. The end effect is powerful for those willing to surrender themselves to it. Given the solid cast and an intriguing premise, I expected to like The Astronaut Farmer, but I more than liked it; I fell in love with its depiction of the magic that comes from daring to dream. This is a little masterpiece.

( out of four)

DVD Features:

The Astronaut Farmer is one of my favorite movies of 2007, and it’s a shame that not enough people saw it in theaters. Hopefully, the DVD release will help audiences discover this under-appreciated gem.

The DVD is presented on a single disc, with the widescreen version of the film on one side and the full-screen version on the other. (Do I even need to say that watching it full-screen would be a crime? Widescreen is the only way to go, for this or any movie.) The special features kick off with the 30-minute feature “How to Build a Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer.” This behind-the-scenes mini-documentary includes interviews with the Polish brothers, in which they talk about casting their real-life daughters in the movie. Their personal style of filmmaking is also discussed by Thornton, Madsen, and others in the cast and crew. Other areas covered include the creation of the musical score and the building of the impressive sets.

Next up is a blooper reel, which contains a lot of shots of Virginia Madsen cracking up and Billy Bob Thornton cracking wise. Blooper reels are notorious for being a little hit-or-miss, but I found this one to be pretty amusing. You can feel the actors having a good time making the movie.

Finally, there is a segment called “A Conversation with NASA Astronaut David Scott.” This feature is admittedly a little disappointing, as it runs only 2 ½ minutes and consists basically of Scott talking about how you couldn’t really build a rocket ship at home. I wish he had addressed the manner in which he made his own dream of going into space a reality. This would have been a nice counterpoint to the story of Charlie Farmer.

Regardless of that one weak segment, The Astronaut Farmer is totally worth purchasing on DVD. It is the kind of movie I know I will watch again and again. Sometimes great movies get missed in theaters only to find a large, appreciative audience on DVD. It happened with The Shawshank Redemption, and I sincerely hope it happens with this film too.

The Astronaut Farmer is rated PG for thematic material, peril and language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out The Astronaut Farmer

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