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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Fog/Mist
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October Sky
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On Oct. 5, 1957, the Soviet Union sent a chill up the spine of every American old enough to understand the words "Cold War." And they did it by sending something else up--Sputnik, a bulky pile of metal with a radio transmitter attached. Hurled into outer space and then into orbit around the earth, Sputnik represented the dawn of the Space Age and the pistol-shot start of the Space Race, a dash to the finish line (located somewhere on the surface of the moon) by the world's superpowers. Those of us too young to have seen it streaking across the night sky may have trouble appreciating the hullabaloo that surrounded the launching of Sputnik. To many Americans, it was as if the Soviets had drawn a line in the sand and flexed their biceps. ("We will bury you," Khrushchev had warned.) Only President Eisenhower seemed to remain calm, refusing to allow a little thing like a satellite to interrupt his golf game.

To Homer Hickam, whose name pretty much summed up his station in life, Sputnik wasn't part of some Commie takeover--the rocket's red glare. It was a shooting star upon which to make a wish. The son of a West Virginia coal miner, Homer was destined to spend his days digging deeper and deeper into the third rock from the sun until Sputnik literally turned his life upside-down. Like many of us during the '50s and '60s, he started building model rockets. (Mine are still in my attic.) Unlike most of us, he used rocketry as a launching pad into the world at large, winning the 1960 National Science Fair with three of his classmates, which led to a college scholarship and eventual employment as an engineer with NASA--a long way from the hoot-owl shift at the Olga Coal Co. in Coalwood, W.V. A Horatio Alger story sprung to life, Homer Hickam may never wake up from the American dream.

And the dream just keeps getting better and better. In 1998, Hickam published Rocket Boys, a book-length account of his escape from Coalwood. And now here's October Sky, the movie version. Directed by Joe Johnston, who already took on jet propulsion in his 1991 film The Rocketeer, October Sky is as American as apple pie--a myth about upward mobility that seems all the more mythic for having been "based on a true story." Of course, there are true stories and there are true stories. Hickam admits to having improved on the truth a little bit when necessary, and Rocket Boys might as well have the words "Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture" written all over it, so easily does it fall into the mythic storytelling patterns of American moviemaking. If Norman Rockwell had painted a picture about Sputnik, it might have come out like October Sky--earnest, hopeful and subtly patriotic.

Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't make the young Homer a very complicated person; he wasn't asked to. But he's one of those actors who all but shout the importance of being earnest, and we're behind him all the way. The movie pits him against his father (Chris Cooper), a mine superintendent with a spot on his lung and a heart that's grimy with coal dust. Even with black-lung disease, Homer's dad expects his son to follow him into the mine after graduating from high school, but Homer has his own plans. Inspired by the work of Wernher von Braun, he wants to send a rocket into outer space, and the movie's most entertaining moments are when Homer and his friends send their failures streaking and shrieking across the West Virginia countryside. Before long, the boys are attracting a crowd, the press and--perhaps inevitably--the police. Meanwhile, the mine's running out of coal, the workers are on strike, and Homer's dad gets shot at.

So perilous is Homer's journey out of Coalwood that you finally expect to see him tied to the railroad tracks. Instead, there's a scene where Homer and his friends pull up the tracks from what they thought was an abandoned line so they can sell the stuff as scrap metal and apply the money to their space program. October Sky has just enough high jinks to keep it from turning into stone--e.g., a girl who eyes the model rocket held suggestively close to Homer's crotch and says, "Is that thing really gonna fly?" But you have to wonder why Johnston and scriptwriter Lewis Colick didn't want to have even more fun with this material; why not some Huckleberry Finn to go with all that Horatio Alger? Many of the characters--the women, especially--are curiously undeveloped, as if developed characters would only get in the way of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. But what were they trying to achieve?

Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that October Sky wants to reclaim the '50s from the '60s. The movie's set at the cusp of those two eras, early rock 'n' roll sending a whiff of rebellion through Coalwood. Still, Homer's anything but rebellious; he wins the National Science Fair, for crissakes. Like Forrest Gump, October Sky reimagines our postwar history as an Age of Innocence heading toward Paradise Lost, only to arrive back at the Age of Innocence. It's as if the filmmakers have forgotten that the '50s were draped in fear and paranoia--The Bomb, McCarthyism, etc. Or maybe they haven't forgotten, merely ignored it. The movie's politics are decidedly right of center. Homer's father, whom he respects more than even Wernher von Braun, is an anti-union company man. And Homer himself is supposed to be living proof that, in America, anyone who's willing to work hard enough can reach the stars.

That's probably just true enough to ensure many more movies like October Sky in the future. But someday I'd like to see a movie about someone who, against all the odds, doesn't reach the stars. That, too, is as American as apple pie.

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