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Rocket Man

The Astronaut Farmer taps into stirring space-race iconography.

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Of all the rotten things to be, The Astronaut Farmer has got to be the worst: inspiring. It's a dirty trick, and I'll start being mad at it just as soon as I get over how much the film pleased me.

The film opens with a man wearing a spacesuit and riding a horse across a desert's white sands. Are there two more indelible images of the American spirit than the cowboy and the astronaut? The juxtaposition is impossibly attractive.

The man in question is Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texas rancher who, once upon a time, was a test pilot and astronaut-in-training. He gave up his aspirations when he had to return to the family farm after his father killed himself. But the ambition to get into space never left Charles, and he decided to build a rocket out of cast-off NASA materials and equipment and shoot himself into orbit. The film opens in medias res: He's been working on his rocket for so long now that people in his small town are doubting he'll ever launch.

Charles' friends have begun to fold on him, but he still has the support of his wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen), and his kids. (His son's name is Shepard, homage to Alan Shepard, the first American in space, which is nice until you realize the kid's full name is Shepard Farmer.) Unfortunately, building a rocket costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, and whether he's crazy or a genius, Charles has bad credit. He's got a bigger problem, too: the U.S. government, which aims to keep Charles earthbound.

The Astronaut Farmer is directed by Michael Polish (Northfork, Twin Falls Idaho) and was written by him and his identical twin, Mark. As before, the Polish brothers remain fixated on rural oddities and eccentrics that exist just this side of a David Lynch film. And, just as Northfork is as inscrutable as Lynch at his worst, The Astronaut Farmer seems like their attempt at The Straight Story. If it's simple, it's also fraught with meaning.

One of the great strengths of the brothers' vision is in tapping into the power of space-race iconography. There's still something undeniably stirring about the Mercury capsule, the rocket, and that original spacesuit. It lends itself to the story, calling to mind how, once upon a time, getting into space was a shoestring affair where ingenuity and mathematical know-how counted as much anything. In convincing you that Charles has the intellectual wherewithal to build it, the movie has you already halfway to believing in him as much as his family does.

What elevates the film is how it gives you plenty of reason to doubt its characters. Charles has lingering damage from his father's suicide, and the question becomes, Is his rocket a dream made of steel or a 100-foot-high gun to his head? The film also blessedly doesn't engage in stargazing -- I don't think a single character stares at the sky in longing.

What a disservice the trailers for The Astronaut Farmer are: The ads show all its worst, cheesiest lines about dreams. Those lines are in the movie, but they're diluted by two hours of psychological and political rhetoric, gorgeous scenery, and fine acting. In context, the lines don't induce groans. The film is inspiring because it earns its sadness, not because of any speechifying.

"The Astronaut Farmer"

Opening Friday, February 23rd

Multiple Locations

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