The word “Capra-esque” is thrown around a lot these days. Actually, it probably isn’t, but it is used occasionally as an adjective describing the optimistic and innocent tone of a given movie that could just as easily be described as “feel good”. Capra was known for extolling the virtues of basic goodness, hard work, and unselfishness. Perhaps it is because these values are widely considered “American” by our brethren south of the border, and maybe also because Capra made the propaganda masterpiece Why We Fight, that this filmmaker’s body of work is seen as wildly patriotic. It is in the spirit of Frank Capra that the Polish Brothers give us The Astronaut Farmer.
The farmer in question is Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thorton), a former NASA engineer and astronaut trainee who was forced to depart the program in order to take over the family ranch. But some dreams don’t die, like the dream of orbiting the Earth in a homemade rocket built in your barn and ready to launch, save for the 10,000 lbs of fuel you need to break gravity. Enter the FBI, the FAA, and every other dream-destroying organization that’s part of the Federal government because nobody that wants that much rocket juice is doing anything as altruistic as exploring the final frontier. Although the creditors creep and the Feds are high on their own authority, Charlie charms the media and enlists his family as the ground crew for his space odyssey.
Setting aside how even the smartest, most resourceful of former NASA engineers could get their mitts on all the requisite parts to build a rocket, the movie actually is pretty grounded in the merits of Capra. Like George Bailey or Jefferson Smith, Farmer is good and courteous. He’s a dedicated family man who shares his dream of space flight with his children, and they exchange lists of things they’ll take to the moon over dinner, which they eat as a family at the dining room table. The children are well behaved and respectful of their father; son Shepard (Max Thieriot) seems to be on track to follow in his father’s footsteps as a scientist. (His name is probably also an homage to Alan Shepard, the first American in space.)
Naturally, Farmer has his Mr. Potter, or make that Mr. Potters if you count the whole US government. Jacobson, the evil head of the FAA, scoffs at the notion of this man who thinks he can launch himself into space with a homemade module and a trailer-based mission control. It’s more likely that Farmer could be building a WMD, which is why the military has enough firepower aimed at Charlie’s barn to “spread his remains over five states” should he launch, says Jacobson. Now that’s evil. Maybe not Hitler evil, but definitely “are there no prisoners, are there no workhouses” evil.
Thematically, the core of the film is about individualism and the pioneering spirit. Farmer appearing before a committee who’ll determine if he can fly his rocket carries a none-too-subtle reference to the filibuster scene in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. His speech about how America’s lost the ability to dream is in keeping with that classic remembrance of US history; America was built by firebrands that stuck out like sore thumbs because of their ambition, Manifest Destiny and all that. Of course the truth is somewhat murkier, the US won the space race not because of the Charlie Farmers but because of people like Werhner von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V2 rockets that levelled London, and was given amnesty by the US to work for them.
But all the above is cynical talk and The Astronaut Farmer is far more earnest, almost painfully earnest. Thornton is likeable as Farmer and really holds down the accelerated reality of the movie well. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer M. David Mullen, with rich colours and a sunny disposition that reflects the feeling of the material. But there is a bit of drag at the end of the second act, as the film indulges in some self pity for its main characters. The end though is never really in doubt, because the opposite choice, while certainly being bold, would have reneged on the bright, shiny, go for the gold attitude of the first 90 minutes.
Still, this is a family film, about a family that has warmth, humour and inspiration. When people say, “they don’t make movies like this anymore,” they’re referring to films like The Astronaut Farmer. The box office receipts seem to imply that there weren’t many willing to take a ride on “The Dreamer”, the name of the film’s rocket, but it’s worth pointing out that It’s a Wonderful Life was a bomb before being played ad nauseum at Christmas time. So there is hope, but that was the point.