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'October Sky': Soaring to the Stars

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 1999

  Movie Critic

October Sky
Chris Cooper, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal play a father and son at odds. (Universal)

Joe Johnston
Jake Gyllenhaal;
Chris Cooper;
Laura Dern;
Chris Owen;
William Lee Scott;
Chad Lindberg;
Natalie Canerday;
Scott Thomas
Running Time:
1 hour, 48 minutes
Intense father-son conflict and coal mine claustrophobia
So many films have examined the problem of that mythic nasty dude, the Bad Father, that it has grown tiresome. Perhaps for this reason "October Sky" feels completely fresh: It's about the problem of the Good Father.

Good Fathers are rare enough in literature and film; they seem exclusively the property of '50s sitcoms where they were chipper prudes who knew best or counseled the Beav that honesty was the best policy. But John Hickam, the Good Father of "October Sky," is more substantial and complex than the Jims and Wards of yore.

John (the gravitas-heavy Chris Cooper, who starred in John Sayles's "Lone Star") is your basic 100 percent American hero, a fair, hard-working, hateless man who not only supports his family but in a sense supports his town. That town is Coalwood, W.Va., and it exists only because its male citizens ride an elevator a thousand feet beneath the surface of the earth, and there, bent double and sniffing a cancerous grit in what passes for air, they scrabble out the black gunk that made the world of steam run. It's 1957, and topside, when the trains hurl by Coalwood, their funnels blow-torching whole cumulous systems of clouds into the air, you see how necessary coal is, and why the soldiers who fight for it are both heroic and expendable.

John is the king of this underworld: He is the mine supervisor, who knows the cranks and twists of the tunnel universe as well as his own name. He can sense disaster in the earth's vibration or the warp of a wood strut. Time and time again, his quickness, experience and pure Appalachian guts save lives. At the same time, up top, as a non-college-educated mustang in middle management, he's standing between the union that hates the company and the company that hates the union. He's got to hold all this together on guile and strength of will, and perhaps that's why his voice is gravelly with weariness and his eyes hollow with woe. He's not just his sons' father, he's everybody's father.

But John's strength – his rigidity – is also his weakness. The mine not only encloses his physical life but his imagination as well. When Homer, his second son and a scrawny scrapper, conceives of a life beyond the carbon zone, John cannot understand it and cannot support it. He believes it's wrong. Coal mining isn't rocket science, but at least it's not . . . rocket science.

And as it turns out, that's exactly what Homer's dream of escape is: pure rocket science. Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal), his imagination liberated by the little beeping hunk of Red space junk that floats overhead and by an inspirational teacher, is a rocket boy. He dreams of tubes that scream across the sky as they accelerate beyond gravity's rainbow. His hero is Wernher von Braun, who aimed at the stars, even if he sometimes hit London. So when Homer and three of his pals begin cramming pipes with firecracker powder and learn quickly enough they can't even hit West Virginia, much less the stars or London, John turns skeptical. He turns downright nasty when they set a forest aflame.

This conflict is heartbreaking because it's so damned decent. Each loves and wants only the best for the other. It's to director Joe Johnston's credit that he never melodramatizes the weight of this troubled relationship but that he never loses touch with it either. It's there, like a hot spring in the earth, generating radiance all the time, but never confronted directly.

Homer loves a father he cannot please, and John loves a son he cannot understand. Between them stands a mother who loves them both as is, and whose own crusade is to unify them. She's brilliantly played by Natalie Canerday, who was so riveting in "Sling Blade." And around them is the '50s.

The movie, which is derived from a screenplay by Lewis Colick and before that a memoir (called "Rocket Boys") by the actual Homer Hickam, now a NASA engineer, sometimes overdoes the '50s fondness. It flirts with the kind of old-music Brill Building cuteness that worked once, in "American Graffiti," and never again. But somehow the harshness of West Virginia and the gravity of that black hole that either crushes men or inflates their lungs with pestilence never quite permits the film to become too frivolous. Its corniest stroke – Laura Dern as the inspirational teacher also dying of Hodgkin's disease – is annoying, unbelievable, straight out of the great book of Movie Cliches, and also happens to be based on fact.

The film is also filled less with '50s cliches than with '50s ideas: Those rumbling railroads are the principal form of transportation, and symbolize power and escape. (Some of the compositions seem inspired by the works of O. Winston Link, the great photographer of railroads.) The rockets, which the boys come to worship, stand, almost naively, for a future they imagine can be theirs if they can only reach escape velocity. And early launches, where the things sputter or detonate like the Vanguards whose destiny they parallel, signifies their groping awkwardness.

But the best thing about "October Sky" is that its sense of triumph doesn't feel stage-managed, like so many other zircons of cheesy feel-goodism. The rocket boy needs to win nothing glamorous or fancy by '90s standards, but something heroic by '50s standards: a national science contest that will get him the college scholarship that a father who worked like hell every day of his life could never, ever afford.

You laugh. A science contest! How quaint! How diddly! How cornball! How nothing! How naive '50s. But the movie is not ironic, in that weary, revisionist, stupid way. Indeed, it seems to have stepped out of a bomb shelter much more authentically than Brendan Fraser in "Blast From the Past." It's not only about the right stuff, but it's the original blast from the past.

And it makes a great point: Love, honor and respect your father, but then get the hell out of town.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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