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Wednesday, March 7, 2007 04:01 am

Real space

Untitled Document According to Les Nessman, the news director from the ’70s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, the world’s oldest profession is farmer. He’s probably right, despite what you may think. It takes a twisted mind to combine it with one of the newer professions, astronaut, and the filmmaking brothers Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) are quirky enough to pull it off. The Astronaut Farmer may set off a “heartwarming alert” with some audiences, but this is a rare case of a family film with a positive message that is actually good. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a former Air Force pilot who failed to achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut. He takes the do-it-yourself philosophy to extremes by building a rocket inside his barn. The most obvious comparison is to October Sky (1999), a true story of a ’50s teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) who builds and launches miniature rockets. It may be the subject matter, but this is another family film that isn’t awful. The American space program is nearly 50 years old, and the subject is still rarely explored by Hollywood outside the science-fiction genre. To date there have been only two significant historical films on NASA and only a handful of serious fiction films focusing on astronauts. Robert Altman’s Countdown (1968) was the first serious attempt to dramatize the space program on film, excluding the Don Knotts comedy The Reluctant Astronaut (1967). James Caan and Robert Duvall, who reteamed four years later in The Godfather, star as a pair of astronauts at the forefront of the race to beat the Soviets to the moon. Studio interference forced Altman to settle for a more standard film than he wanted, but it still works on that simpler level. The same can’t be said for the drab space tragedy Marooned (1969). Now it is memorable only for accidentally predicting a similar calamity with Apollo 13, which occurred only four months after the film’s release. Ron Howard’s detailed and methodical examination of the real event, Apollo 13 (1995), is far superior. Few historical films are as successful, but The Right Stuff (1983), Philip Kaufman’s epic about the birth of the space program, blows the others away. This is one of those big ones that got away from the public. For those who are finally tiring of Murder, She Wrote reruns, there is always Clint Eastwood’s senior-citizen astronaut movie, Space Cowboys (2000), to warm your aging heart. Although Eastwood has achieved an exalted image as a film director, one shouldn’t forget the numerous clunkers he’s made between his Oscar-winning movies.
New on DVD this Tuesday (March 13): The Holiday, Harsh Times, Sublime, and Shortbus.
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