Ad Astra Per Aspera

24-Oct-07 7:30 PM by
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A movie I was hoping to catch in theaters earlier this year but have now seen on DVD is The Astronaut Farmer. I knew the movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, who I'd ever only seen in bit parts in Armageddon and The Apostle. Once the title rolled, though, I was surprised to see the film also contained an all-star supporting cast: Virginia Madsen (Firewall, Voyager), J. K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man movies), and — in a surprising and uncredited appearance — Bruce Willis as an old military buddy. By the movie's end, I'd not only enjoyed these bit parts but also come to respect Mr. Thornton as a leading actor.

The movie starts with Charlie Farmer (get it?) already deep in the throes of his obsession to obtain that which eluded him in his Air Force days: space flight. We don't know how long he's been building a spaceworthy rocket in his backyard barn, but it's only when he tries to purchase enough fuel for liftoff that the government becomes aware and suspicious of this potentially terroristic activity and intent on shutting it down. Just as discouraging are the numerous community members who see Charlie as a whacko — perhaps even a threat. Only his family supports his endeavor… but even they have their limits.

Astronaut Farmer is a fun movie about the underdog with some wonderful scenes underscoring the protagonist's uniqueness. When he's a guest speaker in a grade school classroom, the teacher compliments him on his "costume" — it having never occurred to her that Charlie is being authentic in both dress and intent. Later, when he is suspected of mental instability, the small-town sheriff sends him to the only psychologist available: the school nurse. Charlie's intolerance for this folderol is to his company's consternation and audience's amusement. A pair of sympathetic FBI agents support this light mood. (When they get a call from their superiors, be sure to listen to the ringtone!)

However, the film may sometimes strain plausibility with its bright-eyed optimism. Or maybe that's just the pessimist in me; I honestly couldn't decide whether to root for or decry our hero when he tells an FAA hearing board, "When I was a kid, they used to tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be, no matter what… and maybe I am insane, I don't know, but I still believe that." With all the tragedy and disappointment Farmer's had in his life, can he really still be that naive? And why can't more of us be that way? It's the same struggle played out more comically in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Perhaps all that mounting frustration is what motivates a sudden and dramatic plot twist at the one-hour mark. Or maybe it was the otherwise calm pacing of the story that the directors decided midstream needed a tweak. Either way, though disruptive at first, this thread too plays itself out by the movie's end. Farmer captures the hearts and imaginations of a nation in this tale that's by-the-book, but is sweet nonetheless and an inspirational counterpoint to my cubicle's décor — maybe I should consider replacing it:


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