Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

OCTOBER SKY (1999) *** 

Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Lewis Colick, based on the book "Rocket Boys, " by Homer H. Hickam Jr.. Photography, Fred Murphy. Editing, Robert Dalva. Production design, Barry Robison. Music, Mark Isham. Producers, Charles Gordo, Larry Franco. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Homer Hickam), Chris Cooper (John Hickam), William Lee Scott (Roy Lee), Chris Owen (Quentin), Chad Lindberg (O'Dell), Natalie Canerday (Elsie Hickam), Laura Dern (Miss Riley) et al. A Universal release. 100 minutes.  PG

From the title, this somehow sounded to me like a Russian film, probably because the classic movie on the 1917 Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, is called October in Russia. But October Sky is not a Russian movie. Yet it all started with the Soviet Union launching, on October 4, 1957, the first satellite ever, Sputnik.

The Space Age began in a sensational way. Sputnik made the Russians proud to the point of haughtiness. It scared Cold War America. It gave a huge boost to the US. space program. And, as in millions of places on earth, it had the whole population of Coaltown, West Virginia, crane its collective neck to watch that incredible point of light travel in the October sky.

The boost was not limited to American and other scientists. In Coaltown, for example, it fired up the imagination of high schooler Homer Hickam, the son of John and Elsie. Coal mine superintendent John radiated authority, brooked no nonsense or errors from his men, and was totally devoted to his profession.

Coaltown was just that, a small, modest community where just about all males were coal miners and all the fathers took for granted that their sons would become miners. Because Homer's brother Jim was a local football star, he might get an athletic scholarship after graduation. But Homer? He did play football but regularly got creamed by the other teams. He took his punishment bravely, unflinchingly, stoically, like a real mensch -- a term that would puzzle Coaltowners.

As Homer, Jake Gyllenhaal is likable, nice-looking, well-mannered but essentially just a face in the crowd. Sputnik changes all that. It becomes for him something like his Road to Damascus, where Paul the Apostle had his sudden revelation that made him a Christian. Homer, encouraged by his teacher Miss Riley, sets out to build a working rocket.

He enlists two of his schoolmates, both "regular guys, " then Quentin who has a high I.Q., is exceptionally strong in many areas of science, reads voraciously and experiments. As the class --if not all of Coaltown's -- nerd ( "a geek" say the students), he is shunned by others as a weirdo. He keeps to himself. Even Homer's two original collaborators are surprised by his choice of a fourth musketeer.

But the team is a good one, bonds quickly, works well. They are nicknamed The Rocket Boys by a population which in its majority sees the fellows as nutty, time-wasting eccentrics engaged in "all that nonsense, ", the very words of Homer's father.

The kids are not discouraged. Homer doesn't say "I Have a Dream" but could. Against the odds, the quartet scrounge for materials, build one rocket after another, meet failure after failure, but also make progress, doggedly, as they learn from their mistakes --until they triumph. All the while, the unexpected keeps happening, as does, in Homer's life and travails, the semi-expected, the inflexible opposition of his dad. Thank God for the understanding of his sweet, smart and helpful mother, warmly played by Natalie Canerday..

Since I do not know the source book, the best seller memoir "Rocket Boys" by Homer H. Hickam Jr. who went on to become a science engineer at NASA, I cannot tell which poetic-filmic liberties the movie took. Homer Hickam is said to have been pleased by the movie.

Bits of audience manipulation are unavoidable, but no drawbacks. One example. A nice metal-worker who had been helping the boys suddenly quits his job to become a miner. He is older but he has debts and can earn twice as much by going down the shaft. The scene is touchingly true. But then, as he checks in (or is it out?) he hangs up his miner's medallion No 723 on a board. The camera zooms in on it. Any experienced filmgoer will tell you that something bad will happen later, and that the camera will re-zoom on tag No 723.

The main shooting was in the town of Petros, Tennessee, in the Knoxville area, since Coaltown is no more. The reproduction of the place, times and people is superior. What also emerges in a near-documentary way is the hard, pathetic life of the coal mining community. The miners and their families seem to take their lot for granted. It is late into the film when Union protests emerge. Even so, there is little that is militant (the Us vs. Them --the mine owners-- element) in the story.

The characters have been beautifully cast. Laura Dern as the school teacher, a smart, helpful and unprovincial West Virginian has a supporting (in every sense) role which takes her into new directions. Ironically, Chris Cooper, as Homer's able but intransigent and anti-union father, had the lead role as the United Mine Workers' strike organizer (and hero) in historically true Matewan (1987), that superb film by John Sayles about the coal-mine wars in Matewan, West Virginia, during the 1920s.

Most everything rings true in this realistic yet feel-good picture. It is a family movie in the sense of its PG rating, and a family movie in its depiction of the Hickams. But the inevitably sad background of the miners' life not only is not underlined but it is balanced by a great deal of upbeat parts and humor concerning the Rocket Boys. They are the first to admit that "we're just a bunch of hillbillies, " yet they pursue a dream that is as far from redneck-ism as can be.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel