The Astronaut Farmer is one of those triumph-of-the-human-spirit movies that make you feel guilty for ever doubting that...well, that the human spirit will triumph in the end. Looking a little long in the tooth to be launching himself into space, Billy Bob Thornton plays Charles Farmer, a Texas cattle rancher/astronautical engineer who, with the rest of his family - lovely wife (Virginia Madsen), stalwart son (Max Thieriot) and cute-as-pie daughters (Jasper and Logan Polish) - has built a rocket in his barn. It seems that Charles was once part of NASA's astronaut-training program but had to drop out due to a personal tragedy. But this isn't a guy who knows the meaning of the words "aborted mission." As idealistic as a 10-year-old child, Charles still hopes to become an astronaut when he grows up.
Luckily for us, Thornton laces his performance with a shot of vinegar, giving Charles the taciturnity of a modern-day cowboy. But the movie itself, despite nods in the direction of such Great Plains crackpots as David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh, has a distinct family-film vibe. Think The Rocketeer, October Sky. At first, Charles seems like the coolest dad in the history of the world. Then we learn he's run up a debt of over $600,000 and attracted the attention of the FBI, the CIA and the FAA, who all wonder what he needs 10,000 pounds of high-grade rocket fuel for. As for the neighbors, they all think he's a real space cadet. But it turns out he's...the coolest dad in the world! "If we don't have dreams," Charles says at a public hearing held in the local high school gymnasium, "we have nothing."
Can't argue with that. And you have to give credit to director Michael Polish, who wrote the script with his identical-twin brother, Mark, for making sure this stuff doesn't go down so smoothly that we can barely taste it. He's filtered the golden light through Texas dust, as if The Last Picture Show were screening down at the Bijou. And it finally dawns on us, halfway through the movie, that Charles might actually be insane. But The Astronaut Farmer only entertains such notions, doesn't embrace them. And although it alludes to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, it's a lot closer to Field of Dreams. Build it and they will come, although I suspect it's a little bit easier building a baseball diamond than cobbling together a rocket ship from spare parts. I'll say this for Charles' small step for man, his giant leap for mankind: He's a lot cheaper than NASA.