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The Astronaut Farmer is a American drama film directed by Michael Polish, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Mark. The story focuses on a Texasmarker rancher who constructs a rocket in his barn and, against all odds, launches himself into outer space.


Charles Farmer is a former astronaut-in-training who was discharged from the military before he could fulfill his dream of becoming a vital part of NASAmarker. Having missed the opportunity to travel into space, he decides to build a replica of the historic Mercury-Atlas in the barn on his secluded ranch in the fictional town of Story, Texas, using all his assets and facing foreclosure as a result. When he begins making inquiries about purchasing rocket fuel, the FBImarker and FAA step in to investigate, and the ensuing publicity thrusts Farmer into the spotlight and makes him a media darling.

Farmer's first launch is delayed by endless red tape created by government officials, who seek to stall him beyond his deadline to foreclose on the farm. Farmer is denied the fuel he wishes, which would be liquid hydrogen. His ranch facing financial ruin, he panics and somehow launches his rocket before it is ready and without the proper fuel. His rocket falls over and horizontally blasts out of an old wooden barn. (An overlooked technical flaw is that no wooden barn could possibly survive the thousand+ degree heat and blast of a rocket.)

Farmer nearly dies with head trauma and other injuries after his capsule is thrown from the rocket. Spectators and their vehicles are nearly crushed. During the months he spends recuperating, public interest in his project wanes, and when he recovers sufficiently to start anew, he is able to do so in relative privacy with the support of his wife Audrey, his son Shepard, and daughters Stanley and Sunshine. An inheritance left by his father-in-law Hal allows him to settle all his debts and finance reconstruction of his rocket which he succeeds in launching. As officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are arresting his one lone illegal-alien farmhand, the rocket rises out of the barn. After orbiting Earth nine times, he returns safely.


In How to Build a Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, screenwriters Michael and Mark Polish reveal they used their father as a role model for the character of Charles Farmer.

The space suit worn by Farmer is the same Mercury-era Navy Mark V pressure suit worn by all Mercury Seven astronauts prior to Mercury-Atlas 9. Additionally, the rocket featured in the film is a nearly-scale replica of the Mercury-Atlas that launched America's first astronauts into orbit.

Although set in Texas, the film was shot on location in Espanolamarker, Las Vegasmarker, Santa Femarker, and White Sands, New Mexicomarker.

The film's soundtrack includes "Rocket Man" by Elton John, "Luckenbach, Texas " by Waylon Jennings, "(Hey Baby) Que Paso" by Texas Tornados, "John Saw That Number" by Neko Case, "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)" by Dwight Yoakam, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" by Freddy Fender, "List of Reasons" by Dale Watson, "I Made a Lover's Prayer" by Gillian Welch.

The film premiered at the 2006 Mill Valley Film Festival. Its February 23, 2007 theatrical release in the United States was three days after the 45th anniversary of the country's first orbital mission, Friendship 7, piloted by John Glenn.


Critical reception

The movie was a financial flop and a moderate critical success. It maintains a 58% rating on rotten tomatoes. Negative reviews concentrate on the ridiculous plot and the total reliance on "a decidedly American formula of can-do crazy" while positive reviews highlight the same elements as the good things about the movie.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times called the film "a disarmingly sincere follow-your-dreams fable" and added, "The tone of the film . . . is wide-eyed and unapologetically sentimental . . . With another actor in the title role . . . the mawkishness would be unbearable, but Mr. Thornton can be relied upon for understated dignity accompanied by an intriguing undertone of serious craziness . . . The Polish brothers, in earlier films like Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, have always placed wonderment above storytelling, and the availability of big stars and a reasonable special-effects budget has not entirely blunted their taste for odd, resonant images. The opening shots, of Farmer on horseback in his space suit, hint at a strangeness that the rest of the movie never quite lives up to, but it does have a visual freshness that makes the bromides and clich├ęs palatable."

Kevin Crust of the Los Angeles Times observed, "There's something old-fashioned about The Astronaut Farmer that's so conventional it feels unconventional. It follows the paradigm of inspirational movies so perfectly that even the smallest deviation seems rebellious. The movie's orthodoxy is precisely what allows us to take such pleasure in its irregularities . . . With this movie, the [Polish] brothers have been given a giant coloring book. While both write and produce, Mark directs and Michael acts . . . and for the most part, they attempt to stay within the lines. But it's in the few moments when they go outside those lines that the movie momentarily soars."

Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film " exemplary family-friendly entertainment" and added, "[I]n less artistic hands, [it] could easily spin into cliche. Michael and Mark Polish . . . avoid triteness by sheer force of imagination. The small Texas town where Charles Farmer . . . handcrafts a rocket in his barn one valve at a time is presented as both familiar and otherworldly, part Norman Rockwell, part Twilight Zone . . . The brothers are following a path set by David Lynch, the king of weird, who ventured into wholesome territory with The Straight Story and came up with something profound in its simplicity . . . The Polishes set up a classic David and Goliath situation, leaving no question of whom the audience will root for. There are sufficient surprises along the way, so the ending is far from predictable. The Astronaut Farmer's goofy quality makes it totally endearing. It's also super entertaining."

Steve Dollar of the New York Sun said, "Even for a comedy with dramatic drive, The Astronaut Farmer demands that the audience suspend its disbelief on multiple fronts . . . What is believable, however, is the passion of the Billy Bob. He genuinely makes all the tearjerker, hug-a-munchkin family stuff resonate. Maybe it takes an actress as sensual and earthy as Ms. Madsen to match Mr. Thornton in emotional honesty, but their grown-up dynamic is what keeps the movie from drifting out of orbit."

DVD release

Warner Home Video released the film on DVD on July 10, 2007. The disc offers the option of watching the film in either anamorphic widescreen or fullscreen formats. It has an English audio track and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Bonus features include How to Build a Rocket: The Making of The Astronaut Farmer, a blooper and outakes reel, and an interview with former astronaut David Scott.

See also


  2. New York Times review
  3. Los Angeles Times review
  4. San Francisco Chronicle review
  5. New York Sun review

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