October Sky

There is a scene in October Sky, directed by Joe Johnston, when the
four “Rocket Boys” from Coalwood, West Virginia., inspired by the sight of
Sputnik streaking through the night sky, are setting off one of their rockets.
On a sylvan road beside the launch site there appears an original, 1958 Corvette
convertible in red and white driven by what at the time might have been called a
“drug-store cowboy,” next to whom is a pretty girl in sunglasses and a
head-scarf. The man asks directions. The boys, slack-jawed in admiration, tell
him how to get to where he is going, and the Corvette roars off. “Did you see
how she looked at me?” says one of the boys to the others. And then they return
to their rocketry. There is no further mention of the car or the couple in it
during the rest of the film.What, you might be excused for wondering, was
that doing here?

The answer is that it is just a gratuitous reminder, one of several in the
film, that to the filmmakers neither success nor happiness is imaginable in a
West Virginia coal town in the 1950s, and that escape from such a town would
have been the uppermost thought in the mind of every teenager unlucky enough to
have to live there. One of them observes sardonically that the Russians would
never bomb Coalwood: it would be a waste of a good bomb. When another goes to
Indianapolis on the bus the rest call out to him: “Say hello to the outside
world for us.” True, many teenagers of the period would have felt this way,
especially in a poor community dominated by the coal mine and the company store.
But to me it strikes a false note and reveals the essential weakness of the
film, undermining its presentation of an admirable example of what I suppose we
must call “family values.”

This weakness is that the passion for rocketry that is ostensibly at the
heart of the picture is curiously absent from it, pushed to the periphery by
Hollywood’s idea of more important things. The rockets, the science, the
engineering, the political competition with the Soviet Union—all become at
best means to some other end, whether it is college and escape from the
contemporary social reality of the West Virginia mines or the girl and the
Corvette or defiance of an overbearing parent. This sacrifice of substance to
symbolism leaves one with a strangely hollow feeling. It seems too much like
Hollywood’s idea of success—even success in rocket science—that it
necessarily involves the red and white Corvette and the girl in the

I don’t mean to be unduly harsh on the film. It is hard, maybe impossible, to
suggest the romance of rocket science on film without the aid of such
sweeteners, and the story that pushes it into the background—that of the
relationship between young Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his father (Chris
Cooper), a tough straw-boss down in the mine and a man of unbending
rectitude—is nicely nuanced and emotionally affecting. The love between
father and son has to contend not only with the normal strains that father-son
relationships endure in adolescence but also with an unusual degree of
expectation on both sides. Yet, even the film’s best feature is affected by its
weakness. When Homer’s father is injured and he is briefly forced to go down in
the mine, the man in the suit who signs him up might as well proclaim himself a
villain as say that “Coal-mining is an honorable trade, son; it’s nothing to be
ashamed of.”

For the filmmakers, it is, if not exactly something to be ashamed of, at best
something to be scorned and patronized. Because they are so utterly
unsympathetic to the culture of the mine, the father’s pride in his work and his
hope for his son to succeed him seems merely pigheaded and inexplicable. What is
otherwise a nicely balanced portrayal tilts too far towards Homer’s callow
Hollywoody dreams and somewhat overshadows even the excellent performances of
Laura Dern as the teacher, Miss Riley, who inspires Homer to believe that he can
go to college and “be somebody,” Natalie Canerday as his mother, Elsie and
Chris Owen as Quinten, his best friend, a fiercely proud and desperately poor
social pariah. Together with William Lee Scott as Roy Lee and Chad Lindberg as
Odell, these boys do a good job of enacting teenage male group dynamics of the
period, but one could wish that the filmmakers themselves had been a little less
committed to a teenage male scale of values.

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