To misquote Ray Bradbury, first of all, it was October, a rare month for Rocket Boys.
It was October, 1957, and Sputnik changed the world. It changed the lives of some American boys in Coalwood, West Virginia, a backwoods town centred on its old coal mine that was living on borrowed time. The sight of Sputnik in the night sky and the dawn of the Space Age signalled the End of Days for Coalwood, the relentless march of Time heralding the inevitable end of the 1950s. Watching Sputnik traversing across the October night sky gave Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a glimpse of an exciting world outside his hometown of Coalwood, the possibility of a life different to everyone else in the town, who seemed to have lives mapped out before them, sons following fathers into the mine. Inevitably Homer’s ambitions created friction with his father John Hickam (a typically splendid Chris Cooper) who was the mine superintendent who loved his job, the mine and took immense satisfaction in how it kept the town alive. John expected his son to follow in his footsteps and could not understand why Homer would seek another life, his head in the sky in a town where all attentions were upon the dark bowels of the Earth.
October Sky is a wonderful, life-affirming sugar rush of a movie, and a male weepie in the tradition of Field of Dreams: its one of those films for fathers and sons. The fact that the film is based on a true story, specifically a book, Rocket Boys, written by Homer Hickam himself, only makes the film all the more poignant. I generally have a problem with films that begin “based on a true story” because that often means very little, with films taking all sorts of liberties, but the hell with that- the cynic in me is sulking in that dark corner over there and he ain’t coming out for this post. October Sky is great.
The film was directed by Joe Johnston, of Jumanji and Rocketeer fame (not to mention his work for ILM on the original Star Wars films, his name etched into my head back in the heady days of my youth reading The Art of Star Wars and seeing his artwork as an effects illustrator). He’s something of a hero to the twelve-year old geek in me, and his attachment to this film as director is one of the reasons I wanted to see this film for such a long time. Why exactly it took over twenty years for me to get around to it… well, its just one of life’s mysteries. The additional synchronicity that when I did finally get a round to it, it was actually in October… well, I guess Ray Bradbury would enthuse upon the rightness of that better than I ever could.
The period details are lovely, there is a wonderfully evocative feel of the time and place, from the cars, the clothes, the period songs playing over the radio, the sense of innocence in an American town so isolated from the bigger world, something really that still seems true for many old industrial towns of America today. There is always, of course, something of the Lost World about that, too, of an Industrial Heartland, and all the homegrown traditions that come with it, that has largely disappeared from America (as it has here in the UK, too). The fate of Coalwood was the fate of many American towns, as well as the mining towns here in the UK and a coal mining industry and way of life lost completely. One can sympathise and understand John Hickman’s desire to maintain the way of life that made sense of his own life and his whole community – and understand the stirring sensations his son feels as he looks up at an October sky suddenly full of possibilities.
The film is a warm story about friendship -John recruiting his schoolmates to help him in his adventure of amateur rocketry – that shares much of the effect of films like Stand By Me, a lovely ensemble piece that is heartfelt and feels very true. There is also a nice sense of community, as people around them start to assist them, drawn into John’s passion. The acting is generally superb, the cast excellent- everything feels real, and everyone looks real (perhaps Laura Dern is the weakest link, looking perhaps a little too Hollywood in a film where most everyone looks so wonderfully ordinary, but that’s more of an issue with casting than Dern herself, who is perfectly fine). Sharing in this sense of the ‘ordinary’ and even the mundane, the visual effects from none other than ILM are indeed surprisingly subtle while being uniformly excellent.
Accompany that with a fine score by Mark Isham and you have what is essentially a perfect little movie. This is a great little film, and anyone who loved Field of Dreams will really get such a lot out of this.