The obvious film to compare The Astronaut Farmer to is October Sky, an internalized story about a boy following through on his dreams of space flight against all adversity. Both films are about average individuals chasing their dreams of space against the odds, but any similarity between the two movies ends there. Where October Sky is a deeply personal movie about one space-crazy kid’s love of the sky, The Astronaut Farmer is a big, broad, wallowing movie caught up in politics, media attention, and beating its audience over the head with anti-government messages.
It begins well enough, jumping us into the life of Charles Farmer, his rocket already in progress. Once, long ago, Charles was an astronaut in training. Forced to leave the service for a family emergency, he hasn’t given up on his dream of making it into space. He’s just decided to do it without NASA. Now a rancher in Texas (which looks an awful lot like New Mexico), Farmer has been building a rocket in his barn, a perfect replica of one of the Mercury models once used by the American space agency to launch astronauts into orbit. To build it he’s mortgaged everything he owns, and he’s heavily in debt to the bank. His wife and kids are completely supportive though and his son Shepard (Max Theriot), following in fathers footsteps as a brilliant engineer, is ready and willing to serve as his mission control.
Therein lies the problem. There doesn’t seem to be much in Farmer’s way. His wife seems perfectly content with her husband spending everything to blow himself up. She doesn’t even complain when he pulls the kids out of school to slave away on his pet project. Everyone in his personal life is behind Charles Farmer, so the script has to bring in the government to provide some sort of obstacle for him. Soon the movie drifts away from the much more interesting dynamic of the Farmer family to teach us all about how the government keeps good men down.
To combat the government Farmer calls in the media, and the script goes from bad to worse. The intimacy of his family is spoiled and replaced by a media three-ring circus, of the type just about every movie resorts to when it can’t come up with anything more subtle. The result is that the movie distances itself from the audience. Smack dab in the middle of the film Farmer ceases to be a guy we can identify with and becomes an obsessive media figure fighting The Man. There’s nothing deeply personal about any of it.
Luckily, things sort of get back on track towards the end. The script goes full circle and returns to the business of being about Farmer and his family dealing with the consequences of his dream. Billy Bob gives a great performance as Farmer. You believe in the guy. Michael Polish directs the thing pretty capably, and M. David Mullen delivers some truly beautiful cinematography. But there’s this big, loud, annoyingly broad blight in the middle of the movie that just won’t go away. It keeps The Astronaut Farmer from being the intimate, uplifting movie about a humble guy overcoming adversity movie it should be. The movie plays too much like an Ayn Rand novel and not enough like October Sky.