Monday Movie: The Astronaut Farmer, by David Bax
The attacks of September 11th, 2001, changed most everything in this country. That doesn’t just mean that things were different from that point on, though they were. It also means that parts of our collective past were irreversibly altered. The Astronaut Farmer, the 2006 film from the Polish brothers, is an unironic tale of can-do American spirit that feels, in almost every way, like it should be a relic of the pre-9/11 era. Yet there are elements, such as the involvement of the Department of Homeland Security, that let you know the Polish brothers know exactly what they’re doing.
The Astronaut Farmer is a movie about a farmer named Charles Farmer who wants to be an astronaut. To be fair, the man (played by Billy Bob Thornton) was on his way to becoming one before financial issues forced him to retire from the Air Force and return home to work the family farm. Now that’s what he does but, with the emotional support of his wife, Audrey (Virginia Madsen), he is building a rocket in the barn and harboring serious ambitions to get to space on his own.
If that sounds like the plot to one of those family-targeting live-action Disney movies like Disney’s The Kid, that’s probably no mistake. Those are exactly the type of stories the Polish brothers are emulating but it’s as if we seeing them reflecting in a mirror with a very slight, almost unnoticeable warp. The pitch-perfect cast helps sell the illusion. Corny or not, the chemistry between Thornton and Madsen is touchingly palpable. Meanwhile, supporting performances by Bruce Dern as Madsen’s father and Bruce Willis as Thornton’s old Air Force buddy, as well as a number of smaller turns by reliable character actors like Jon Gries, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons, Richard Edson, Graham Beckel and (one of my personal favorites) Marshall Bell deepen the material marvelously.
Charles Farmer’s passionate and wholesome striving would be right at home in a Frank Capra movie. In fact, much of The Astronaut Farmer’s general milieu would fit into the movies we think of when we think of Capra. But, with their unique take on a version of Americana for which they have genuine fondness, the Polish brothers here resemble no one so much as David Lynch when he made The Straight Story. Both films are dedicatedly earnest. This one is a mostly hopeful but never naïve reevaluation of the post-9/11 American dream.