Published February 1, 1998
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 head-scarf.
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.