“The Astronaut Farmer”: a ray of light in trying times

A few weeks ago, NASA made a lot of news headlines, not by the virtue of any successes that these days are few and far between at the space agency, but because Lisa Nowak, a former astronaut, went crazy and tried to kidnap another pilot in a crime of passion. “The Astonaut Farmer” is the first space movie released since then, and not only does it stand to capitalize from the astronaut-love-triangle-attempted-murder scandal, but it will likely help our country’s healing process as well.

The scandal added another layer of dirt to NASA’s already tarnished record. Not only is the shuttle program a deadly money pit, but its astronauts are insane killing machines who will drive 13 hours wearing diapers. Unfortunately for NASA, while “The Astronaut Farmer,” might become a minor feel-good hit, its main character is also sort of crazy.

Billy Bob Thornton (“Bad News Bears,” “Bad Santa”) takes a vacation from his typical foul-mouthed drunken profligates and plays Charlie Farmer, a former astronaut turned family man after the inheritance of his family farm forced his retirement from the space agency. Not one to give up on his dreams, Farmer puts his engineering degree to good use and starts building a rocket ship in his barn.

He’s got the support of his wife (Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”), family and his hometown, and even becomes a media darling once the national news catches on. He’s got the whole country rallying around him, and then the government comes in and stomps all over his dreams.

It all goes wrong when Farmer tries to buy enough rocket fuel to, well, launch a rocket, and the Feds aren’t thrilled. All sorts of people from all sorts of agencies come and try to boss the little guy around – perhaps jealous that one guy could launch himself into orbit with little more than elbow grease, while NASA’s $1 billion budget goes toward launching decrepit shuttles and training psycho-killers.

On its surface, “The Astronaut Farmer,” is about chasing your dreams in spite of adversity. But its subterranean thesis is that the government, and government-funded regulatory agencies, totally suck.

It’s rare to see such a family friendly film that carries such messages (and stars Billy Bob Thornton). “The Astronaut Farmer,” is very well done and makes its point without being ham-handed. Thornton is conflicted, ambitious and slightly crazy – I mean, he tries to launch a rocket from his backyard and his 15 year-old son runs mission control – but he pulls off a patriarch admirably. There are welcomed cameos from Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) J.K. Simmons (“Spiderman”) and Bruce Willis.

It’s not “The Right Stuff,” but then again, NASA’s best days are far behind it.

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