What's entertaining about October Sky is the unlikely-but-true spectacle of backwater West Virginia teens teaching themselves rocket science in the Eisenhower '50s. They progress from a glorified cherry bomb to sophisticated missiles through trial-and-error-and-error. Their inner rocket fuel is the desire to avoid getting stuck in the dying coal industry that supports their hometown. They are their fathers' sons, but they don't want to make their fathers' mistakes.
This combination of character, subject, and setting is uniquely American and not something you've seen before. Unfortunately, the treatment it gets in October Sky grows increasingly predictable as the film goes on. The film depicts patriarchal bonds with bogus reverence and reduces the teenage boys' rebellious drive to the "go for it!" spirit usually portrayed on a Wheaties box. These two dubious achievements will likely make it a big hit.
Based on Homer H. Hickam Jr.'s 1998 memoir, Rocket Boys (a better title), the movie tells the story of how the launching of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 inspires young Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) to form a rocket club with his best friends, bucking the wishes of his coal-mine superintendent dad (Chris Cooper) and the athletics-or-bust ethos of Coalwood, West Virginia.
The film is cheekier than its gloppy publicity. In the movie, the boys plant a flag at their launch site in the manner of the Marines on Iwo Jima--and the irony of it gets a laugh. The trailer milks that same image for uplift. Still, right around the halfway mark, the picture succumbs to the emotional button-pushing heralded in the print ad: "From the producer of Field of Dreams: Sometimes one dream is enough to light up the whole sky." October Sky may be set around coal mines, but ultimately it's Field of Corn, Part II. The opening sequences skillfully counterpoint sooty pastorale and slapstick. You can tell that the director, Joe Johnston, who displayed good- natured craftsmanship in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and parts of The Rocketeer, welcomes the chance to work on a real subject, in gritty locales. With his magnificent cinematographer, Fred Murphy (The Dead), he brings texture and charge to views of men entering the mines in sylvan Appalachian dawns and emerging at night. Johnston, Murphy, and the editor, Robert Dalva, convey the massive sweep of heavy industry while fixing details in an audience's mind. The miners' helmet-lights seem magical one moment, sepulchral the next.
In this hardscrabble setting, dreamy-eyed Homer is a comically incongruous hero: part spark plug, part lug. For a while all he does is get knocked down, whether in his futile attempt to make the football team or in his initial effort to launch a rocket. "Just don't blow yourself up," advises his supportive mom (Natalie Canerday). Then his first blast ruins her rose-garden fence. Homer and his gang--semi-slick Roy Lee (William Lee Scott), dogged O'Dell (Chad Lindberg), and doofus intellectual Quentin (Chris Owen)--are a rowdy and engaging group. And their rockets are zany loose cannons. In the film's most satisfying scenes, these projectiles spurt, tumble, and ricochet across the field, leaving even the onlookers who run for their lives oddly exhilarated. In moments like these (or when Homer and Quentin set off flames in the high school science lab), you feel the delicious quixotic bravery of the teenage boys' quest--their determination to skyrocket out of Coalwood, to hook up with Dr. Wernher von Braun and outduel the Soviets, and perhaps to outstrip the football team in sex appeal. Under the guidance of their kindly chemistry teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), they realize their obsession could lead to science-fair prizes and college scholarships. It isn't long before their launches attract cheerleaders.
The movie follows the same trajectory as the book: Homer breaks away from his father's pragmatism and one-track devotion to the mine, and eventually wins him over with his hard-fought success at rocketry. But even in Hickam's likable, drawling memoir, that relationship feels movie-influenced and pat--especially at the climax, when Homer's dad triggers the club's farewell rocket and Homer says, "Nobody ever launched a better rocket than you."
Having blazed a similar path in Field of Dreams, the producer, Charles Gordon, makes sure that his team hits "the father/son thing" (his phrase) terribly hard. What draws you into Hickam's autobiography are gnarly anecdotes that bring traction and ambiance to the narrative. In my favorite pages, the Coalwood preacher tells a captive Sunday audience a parable about a father who drives nails into a door when his son does "bad things," then removes them when the boy repents. "Though the nails were gone, the holes were still there, representing the pain abiding in the father's heart," says the reverend, confirming the father's fatalism. But then the preacher does a turnaround and suggests, "Perhaps the holes in the door are a reflection of the father's petulance more than his love."
After the sermon, Homer's dad takes him to an abandoned slack dump and agrees to contribute scrap materials from the mine for the building of "Cape Coalwood." The story needs refreshing reversals like this.
But the way screenwriter Lewis Colick (The Ghosts of Mississippi) draws the lines of conflict, they tighten around Homer like a noose. Colick doesn't just compress and simplify the material, he melodramatizes it. The most egregious example comes when Homer's dad is injured during a rescue mission at a cave-in, and the wide-screen, fictional Homer leaves school to become a miner and support the family. (He can't expect his jock-hero brother to give up a college football scholarship.)
This kind of invention dampens the euphoria and cheapens the material. The filmmakers seem to get down on their knees and beg on Homer's behalf for the audience's allegiance. This is not to say that Colick should merely have transcribed the book. Actually, he might have come up with a more authentic film if he'd fictionalized it more. In The Last American Hero (1973), Lamont Johnson filmed a real-life saga, based on stock-car champion Junior Johnson, that was just as valiant and full of beans as Rocket Boys. But he took pains to complicate the story and add shadows to the ethical landscape; he turned it into a morally booby-trapped, ultra-contemporary fable--less "good" but more "true."
By contrast, the October Sky filmmakers reorganize and alter incidents to create cut-rate catharses and to keep the action PG--clean and free of controversy. Nobody in the film reminds an immigrant welder (Elya Baskin) who helps the boys that Wernher von Braun worked for the Nazis. And if the movie has jukebox classics like "That'll Be the Day" on the soundtrack, at heart it's far more country than rock and roll. Homer's sexual and romantic yearnings amount to his realizing that he should pin his hopes on the girl who loves him, not his unreachable dream date; in the book, at least he lost his virginity.
While there's plenty of coal dust onscreen, there's not enough of the book's homey funk. The film could use an incident like Homer's mom slipping when she goes out for heating coal in her night clothes and deciding to freeze rather than reveal her body to the dawn mine shift. Homer may still clash with his football-playing brother and divide his dad against his mother (who yearns to leave the coal land and move to Myrtle Beach), yet the film's sentimentality softens the conflicts. And the pseudo-tenderness undermines the actors. The script cedes the characters' interior lives to the group dynamics; all they seem to need is each other's sympathy. Whenever anyone does anything "out of character"--like Dern's super-nice Miss Riley snubbing Homer in the hallway when he decides to drop out of school--it's jarring rather than intriguing.
The movie ends with scraps of real home movies of the actual people. They leave you with the father not as a stubborn scowler who must melt for his son, but as a gallant figure in his own right, dying a slow death because of the growing spot on his lung. Maybe it's the story's blend of outer space and fatherly sacrifice, but the shots of this elusive man in a fedora remind me of John Updike's dad in The Centaur, who in death finds an honored place in a constellation, though "few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars." The flickering black-and-white images are so suggestive and powerful that they momentarily wipe out your memory of Hickam's movie father.
Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Lewis Colick, from Rocket Boys: A Memoir by Homer H. Hickam Jr. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, and Chad Lindberg.