Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Astronaut Farmer

Early in the Polish Brothers' disappointing The Astronaut Farmer, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texas rancher whose "dream" (a loaded word in this film) is to launch himself into outer space from a homemade rocket on his property, stands before an imposing panel of NASA representatives incongruously arrayed around a makeshift podium in a high-school gym, trying to win their permission to launch his rocket. After grilling Farmer on his flight plan, one of the panel members turns to the would-be astronaut and asks him a pointed question. "How do we know," he says, "you aren't constructing a WMD?" "Because," Farmer replies, "if I were building a Weapon of Mass Destruction, you wouldn't be able to find it." Apart from conveniently sidestepping the question (just because the government couldn't find it, doesn't mean they needn't worry about the possibility), Farmer's response is indicative of the film's attempts to dress up a conventional "follow your dreams" story with the veneer of an engaged political involvement. This political involvement, though, is limited to a superficial treatment of the proposed questions and is undermined by the film's insistence on Farmer's moral incontestability, an insistence which results in a muddled political program that does little to dissipate the film's dreary air of conventionality.

In addition to the WMD allusion, the film's catalog of political references includes the Patriot Act (stressing its "convoluted" nature) and government crackdowns on illegal immigration. While these are certainly significant issues, the Polish Brothers seem less concerned with exploring their consequences than with taking cheap shots at the Bush administration and then dropping the discussion altogether. As regrettable as the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act certainly are, they have, by this point, achieved almost universal recognition as such, so it is no longer a bold maneuver to simply point out these misguided government decisions. The illegal immigration angle at first seems more promising, but is quickly abandoned as completely as the other political concerns. The government threatens to deport the illegal Mexican ranch hands working on Farmer's property (who are treated by the open-minded Farmer as members of the family, an "open-mindedness" that the Polish Brothers go out of their way to emphasize since their simplistic ethical program depends on the hero's moral perfection) unless he aborts his mission, but the threat is never followed up and the issue is dropped entirely. Since none of these questions is explored in any depth, they seem like so much superfluous material added to puff up a remarkably thin work, and since the film doesn't pick up any of these issues for further exploration, they ultimately register as distractions from the work's primary concerns.

The picture's most consistent political maneuver is to restrict its portrayal of the government to the role of a perpetual enemy. In his initial hearing, Farmer makes a speech to the NASA representatives in which he accuses them of trying to control space for their own use, a compulsion which marks any challenger (whether from another country or from within the United States) as a threat. He references the Cold War space chase and offers a reading of that conflict in which the moon becomes just one more territory for the United States to colonize before the enemy can beat them to it. Any humanitarian concerns are, of course, secondary. That this government mentality is still prevalent long after the conclusion of the Cold War is emphasized by a visual quotation from The Right Stuff that the Polish Brothers insert towards the end of their picture. As in Philip Kaufman's film, the Polishes stage a tracking shot focusing on a pair of shoes (belonging to a messenger) running down a hallway, followed by a fixed shot of a boardroom in which a group of NASA executives sit nervously around a table before being interrupted by the messenger who delivers a bit of urgent news. In Kaufman's film, the messenger announces the Russians' initial orbit into space. In the Polishes' film, the messenger announces Charles Farmer's successful launch. The quotation implies that Farmer presents a threat similar to that posed by the Russians during the Cold War, a comparable challenge to the United States government's dominance. Still, the Polish Brother's commentary on government control is undercut by a too simplistic portrayal of an evil faceless ruling mechanism. From the mustachioed FBI agents dressed in generic black suits to the austere NASA agents that question Farmer, none of the government figures (with the sole exception of Bruce Willis who, in a cameo appearance as an old friend, tries to dissuade Farmer from his mission) is given any measure of actual existence outside of his role as a government representative.

The film's sentimental insistence on the importance of following one's dreams (Farmer goes so far as to name his rocket "Dreamer") necessitates a simplistic good-evil set-up, with Farmer as the unquestioned hero who, while he may put his family in jeopardy through his dogged insistence on flying, ultimately earns their full-fledged support since, in the film's equation, following one's dreams is more important than any lesser concern such as the protagonist's life or his family's well being. Just as the government is the unredeemable squelcher of dreams, so must Farmer be above any criticism. It is this insistence on Farmer's moral perfection that caused critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to attack the film's political stance, even comparing his unreflective insistence on achieving his goal to George Bush's "stay the course" strategy in Iraq, despite the film's apparent anti-Bush platform. "There's no scientific or humanist motive for Farmer's dream," writes Rosenbaum, "it's strictly personal wish fulfillment. This is the basis of the mythical potency the movie aims for and asks us to endorse, a celebration of the same innocent lunacy that often gets us Americans into trouble -- as it has, for instance, in Iraq." Farmer's dangerous mission is applauded unquestioningly because, as Rosenbaum has it, he is "the designated good guy". The film's refusal to even question the wisdom of his mission marks the work as a morally problematic undertaking which ultimately serves to undercut its own liberal rhetoric.

All this obscures what is dramatically and aesthetically a drab and unimaginative film. The tiresome story fails to deviate from the standard "man-with-a-dream" plot with Farmer overcoming inevitable opposition and initial failure only to achieve his expected success at the picture's conclusion. The film is shot in Scope (2.35:1) but, with the exception of a series of overly prettified interludes where a heavily manipulated sunscape frames Farmer on his horse against the wide Texas expanse, the screen's extra width is largely wasted on drab interiors framed by pedestrian camerawork. Given the quirky nature of the story and the Polish Brother's track record with offbeat material (both Twin Falls, Idaho and Northfork were imaginative treatments of unconventional scenarios) the dreary conventionality of the film comes as a regrettable surprise. That they try to liven this drab treatment with superficial political statements fails to help, especially when their unquestioned acceptance of Farmer's relentless mission and their Manichean understanding of the central conflict threaten to undermine any political good will they may have generated. All we are left with is a simplistic message about the importance of following one's dreams, a message that would seem to be too facile a moral for filmmakers as sophisticated as the Polish Brothers, but as if to deflect any question of this moral's insufficiency as a basis for a work of art, they insist on it with such relentlessness that the film utterly collapses beneath the weight of such a misguided ethical (and politically suspect) program.

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