Charles Farmer was one of thousands of American children who grew up in the 1960s dreaming of one day going into space. Like only a handful of them, he actually followed through on his dream, getting a degree in aerospace engineering and joining the U.S. Air Force as a pilot. But when the death of his father initiated a bitter rift between him and the military, his dreams of flying for NASA were crushed.
So he decides to fly for himself instead.
Farmer puts his engineering background to work and begins building a rocket in his three-story barn. He enlists his family as his ground crew in the “Farmer Space Program.” He’s about ready to launch when the FBI gets wind of the fact that he’s attempting to buy 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel. They’re not happy about it, either. But nothing—from reasoning to red tape to threats—will keep this astronaut farmer from pursuing his dreams. Or dissuade him and his family from trying to beat the system and reach the stars.
When the Farmer family isn’t in the barn with the rocket, they practically live around the kitchen table, eating homemade meals, playing word games, sharing meaningful conversations and even resolving conflict. Mealtime together is the centerpiece of an intentionally crafted family dynamic—one of the most warm and encouraging I’ve seen in a movie in quite a while. Charles’ two young daughters, Sunshine and Stanley, absolutely adore their daddy. And 15-year-old Shepard takes pride in his father’s trust in him as a one-man mission control for the highly anticipated flight. Their admiration is mutual.
Charles and Audie have realistic marital disagreements, yet they’re deeply committed to each other. Audie makes a point of letting Charles know she believes in him, even if no one else in the world does. Audie’s dad, Hal, gets in on the action, too, and is there to offer encouragement, hugs and words of wisdom. He applauds his son-in-law for raising a family that “dreams together”—something Hal himself says he wasn’t able to do.
The movie’s strongly asserted theme is the importance of pursuing one’s dreams, even against seemingly insurmountable odds. Charles tells a boy outside the principal’s office at his kids’ school that it’s important to have a vision for what he wants to be when he grows up. In a moment of discouragement and frustration, Charles says, “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing.” Moviegoers will definitely walk away with a sense that it’s worth risking much to follow one’s dreams. (Maybe too much. I’ll deal with a significant downside to Astronaut‘s rose-colored appreciation of chasing down dreams in my “Conclusion.”)
After a falling-out with her husband, Audie takes the kids to church, saying, “I’m hoping they’ll learn something about forgiveness, because they’re gonna need it.” A church sign says “God bless Astronaut Farmer.” Audie jokes that “the planets are just not aligned” when Sunshine and Stanley won’t eat their planet-shaped pancakes.
There are several images (which include kissing and flirting) designed to show us how healthy Charles and Audie’s married relationship is.
Once, Audie wears a dress that’s a bit low-cut. A school nurse makes a reference to “getting laid.” Charles laments that Shepard’s teacher told her class, “Science isn’t sexy.” Because it’s Charles’ obsession, a Hispanic friend suggests that he name the rocket “la otra mujer” (the other woman). A running gag involves a local waitress making “how big is it?” jokes about the rocket.
An argument between Charles and Audie becomes heated and he tosses (soft) packets of food toward the kids. After they’re driven from the room, she throw plates at him. (The conflict is later resolved). Charles throws a brick through a loan officer’s window after the bank serves him foreclosure papers. (He’s arrested and brought before a judge to be punished.)
An accident with the rocket leaves Charles pretty beat up. We find out that he has six broken ribs, other broken bones, serious head trauma and cuts on his face. We see him somewhat bloody in the back of the family SUV as Shepard drives him to the hospital.
A few references are made to Charles’ father’s suicide. (Nothing is shown of that incident.) Another elderly character dies in his sleep and is discovered by the littlest Farmer, Sunshine. Charles threatens a real estate appraiser by hinting that it’d be easy for him to get away with killing him.
There’s enough in this category alone to keep this from being the upstanding family film it tries to be. Three s-words, a half-dozen uses each of “a–” and “h—,” and two uses of “b–ch” vie for attention. “Jeez” pops up and God’s name is coupled with “d–n.”
Twice, Charles and a friend are shown with beer bottles in hand. Charles “orders” his 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel at a bar—from the bartender.
Charles jokes that he’ll divorce Audie if she buys her dad a pink turtleneck. A couple of political potshots are taken at the war on terror and the Patriot Act.
Charles’ battle with the FBI and the FAA to get his flight plan approved is played as something of a David-and-Goliath story. But because the FAA isn’t actually doing anything immoral or oppressive, it’s hard to see them as unreasonable (goofy) bad guys—despite the filmmakers’ best efforts to cast them in such a light. We’re supposed to be rooting for Charles, but it’s his attitude that seems to need checking here. “It’s not your right to tell me whether or not I can launch into space,” he belligerently informs the FAA review committee. It might be a stirring moment, except that it is the FAA’s right to say who can launch into space from American soil.
Hands down, the sweet portrayal of the Farmer family’s relationships with each other are the best thing about this movie. The Astronaut Farmer successfully develops beautiful father-daughter and father-son relationships. Plus, a devoted married couple makes it all the way through the storyline without cheating, splitting up or dying. When does that ever happen in the movies?
On top of that, there’s the feel-good message about following dreams. But that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. In principle, it’s a great idea, but the way it plays out makes it less like the icing on the cake and more like a ketchup filling inside a pie. You can swallow it, and it won’t kill you, but something’s not quite right about it.
Perhaps it’s the fact that while Charles’ dream is exciting, it’s not very morally substantial. Aside from a few weak lines about wanting to educate the world about space, the dream is almost completely selfish. Charles wants the experience of space. He wants to prove he can do it on his own (so much so that he rejects an offer to take a ride on the next shuttle mission, which would get him to space legitimately—and in relative safety). In contrast to other “follow your dreams” stories, Charles’ quest lacks the nobility and depth needed to make his sacrifice psychologically worthwhile. And it’s a pretty big sacrifice he’s making. He is up to his eyeballs in debt, and barely able to put food on the table. But he’s less concerned about actually doing something about these problems than he is about what his kids will think about him if he doesn’t make it to space. He risks losing his family in order to boost his own ego. And he convinces himself (with Audie’s help) that he’s making the better choice for his kids.
That makes the good-hearted Astronaut Farmer ring hollow. True greatness isn’t about self-actualization, but about laying down your life for those you love. Setting that kind of example is the real way to teach kids to reach for the stars.