THE ASTRONAUT FARMER
There is quite a degree of similarity between The Astronaut Farmer and the largely unknown The Mercury Project/Rockets Red Glare (2000) about a teenager and his former astronaut grandfather who decide to recondition and launch an old Mercury rocket on their farm. Both films feature former astronauts trying to recapture the glory of the space mission and the dream of being in space; both are set in rural America and feature the building of rockets in barns; while both also feature NASA stepping in to stop someone encroaching on their domain. The difference is that The Mercury Project is a childrens film, whereas The Astronaut Farmer is an adult film. Both though are films about individuals who dream of going into space by their own effort.
The frequent theme throughout the Polish Brothers films is of ordinary people in the American Midwest living with the burden of almost impossible dreams. These find their greatest strength in The Astronaut Farmer. It is a beautiful tribute to having the confidence in almost impossible dreams against overwhelming odds. Against this, the Polishs array almost everybody the FBI, pompous NASA officials, the bank, the local authorities and set them baying at Billy Bob Thorntons door. It becomes a considerable emotional triumph when the rocket finally does launch despite everything seemingly set against Billy Bob doing so.
The Polishs play straight to the American heartland but Michaels direction is ordinary and unassuming, his strengths are plain he never makes the maudlin appeals to Norman Rockwell Americana that someone like Frank Capra does. He has a nice eye for illustrating the film with meagre but highly evocative simplicity like Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen line dancing at a county fair, the kids riding on a rocket fairground ride in the field, the Easter Egg hunt around the capsule. The film opens with the bizarre image of Billy Bob Thornton in his spacesuit riding a horse across his farm, tending his cattle, then returning home to sit down to a perfectly normal breakfast of pancakes. The surreal play of American Midwest and the thoroughly incongruous image of a man in a spacesuit in the midst of the scene is striking (even if it is one that the Polishs never particularly explain, like why Billy Bob Thornton sees fit to tend his cattle in a spacesuit). If nothing else, it gives a glorious literalisation to the films title.
The Polishs get near faultless casting with Billy Bob Thornton in the title role. Billy Bob is an actor who is perfectly suited when it comes to portraying flinty, wry humour and straight arrow, clear-speaking wisdom. The role is simply that of the dreamer unafraid to follow his dream and shrugging off all derision and Billy Bob Thornton plays it with an admirable simplicity.
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay at this sites Best of 2006 Awards).