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Retro Rocket

Sputnik-inspired October Sky runs hot and coal

The opening scenes of October Sky don't hold out much promise. They find us back in the extremely familiar territory of the American '50s, hick-style. Coalwood, West Virginia, in this case, where those boys who are on their way to becoming real men play football, the girls cheerlead and the nerds just take up space. All this to the tunes of Elvis Presley.

The lead nerd seems oddly miscast. As Homer Hickam Jr. (I told you they were hicks), son of the manager of the coal mine, Jake Gyllenhaal is awfully good-looking. In fact, Homer Jr. isn't completely sure he's a nerd until he flops on his tryout for the football team. I haven't told you yet that his big brother (Scott Thomas) is an All-State stud and general BMOC, but you've probably figured that out. Maybe, like me, you guess that Homer and his outcast friends will redeem themselves by inventing flubber and kicking field goals for the football team. The movie does claim to be based on a true story, but the story it tells in its opening 15 minutes is so generic it doesn't seem like any actual person's story at all.

Then the Russians launch Sputnik, which is not in itself such a hopeful sign for the movie. We've circled in this particular orbit -- cold war/space race paranoia -- a few too many times. But Sputnik's effect is different this time. Young Homer joins the town elders on the lawn and with them glimpses the satellite whizzing serenely through the heavens, looking a little like God's own lightning bug. The adults have too much coal dust on the brain to appreciate what they're seeing -- the future, that is -- but young Homer is awestruck. His life has been forever changed, and he will soon set out on a quest of self-discovery. From this point the movie does seem more closely observed and taken from life.

Determined to avoid the coal mine -- which his dad (Chris Cooper) both manages and somehow manages to love, even while it's killing him -- Homer has decided to take the path less traveled. Space: the final escape. Though he's never shown much math or science aptitude, he starts building rockets. He writes a series of letters to Werner Von Braun, seeking the great man's encouragement, a commodity in short supply from his father -- but not from a sympathetic teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern). Next he enlists the class outcast, Quentin, a pimply-faced bookworm reincarnated to a T by Chris Owen, to supply the brains to go with his spirit. A couple of other buddies join in, though it's never very clear what they bring to the mission.

At this point the movie becomes a genuinely pleasing romp. Who could tire of seeing the boys' misguided missiles ripping through the countryside, scattering innocent bystanders and would-be rocket scientists alike? It's an image that nicely captures the innocence of the age (these kids must be high school seniors, but they act like the ten-year-olds of our more jaded times).

Now the director, Joe Johnston (Jumanji), has to do some complicated storytelling. He's got to get us through Homer's fight to break away from his overbearing father and the world of the coal mines that he represents. Which means Homer has to appear to lose the struggle and be swallowed up by the mines when hard times hit the family. This lengthy story has to be combined with the small-town atmospherics, including Homer's rejection and acceptance by girls, coal mining and union politics, along with the rise and fall of the "Big Creek Missile Agency," as the boys call themselves. Oh, Johnston also has to work in the science fair the boys must win in order to get college scholarships, as well as the mortal sickness of a major character, and small-town class distinctions.

It's to Johnston's credit that the overburdened story line never collapses, although it sometimes falters. He remains focused on Homer's eventual triumph and maintains his movie mostly intact, even though a couple of the subplots, especially the union politics and fatal disease entries, do collapse on him.

The movie doesn't exploit what should be some obvious strengths. In the stick figure part of the encouraging teacher, Laura Dern's idiosyncratic talent has probably never been so wasted. And visually the movie doesn't capture the inhuman beauty of the coal mines and of the Cyclops men who work them, lights gleaming in the middle of their foreheads. When Homer steps into the cage which will lower him into the mine, we should shudder in horror. We don't.

But there is a lovely moment when Homer enters the cage (just after he's apparently been forced into accepting the coal-mining life as his own) and looks up sadly into the dawn sky, just in time to see Sputnik zipping overhead. Gyllenhaal smiles just enough to let us know Homer's spirit hasn't yet been crushed.

The film's saving grace comes from its images of the sky. The kids' final rocket launch is a thing of beauty. As the missile lifts off over Coalwood, residents of the doomed town (the mine is about to be closed) look upward to follow its progress and feel that beat of hope that Sputnik hadn't inspired. That spectacular sight is nearly ruined, however, by the schmaltzy cutaway to where the rocket is seen from the hospital window of the character who is dying.

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