October Sky
directed by Joe Johnston
(Universal Pictures, 1999)

In the 1950s sci-fi film heroes loved to pronounce events as "the end of the world as we know it." It never was.

But one thing did occur in the '50s that spelled the end of the world as we knew it: Sputnik. Sputnik gave the Soviet Union something the United States didn't have: a thing that beeped in space. We didn't know what the beeping meant, but we knew it was ominous, and we wouldn't be satisfied until we had a thing in space that beeped even louder.

October Sky is the real-life story of one resourceful child of the '50s who was so taken with Sputnik that he decided to risk everything he had to become a rocket scientist.

It was no simple achievement: He had to take on opposition from his peers, his principal and, most of all, his father, who just couldn't see why his son didn't want to follow in his footsteps, which led deep into a West Virginia coal mine.

Fortunately for Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), he was able to get technical assistance from the neighborhood nerd and support from an unusually hopeful science teacher (Laura Dern), who saw in Homer her chance to prove to Coalwood that there was more to life than a pick and shovel.

Much of the credit for the success of October Sky has to go to director Joe Johnston, who captured on film the look and feel of a fading coal town that doesn't know it's going under. The grit is right. The rain is right. Even the cars capture the American scene circa 1957.

Just as much credit goes to the ostensible bad guy of the piece, Chris Cooper, as Homer's father. Cooper, who played the soul of sensitivity in Lone Star, plays the stuff of blind stubbornness here. Homer's anguish at trying to reach a man who can't see past the next vein of coal and his father's hurt at not being able to lead his son down what he sees as the straight and narrow will ring true with anyone who's ever tried to march to the beat of a different drummer -- or guide a child.

Matching both stroke for stroke is Chris Owen as Quentin, Coalwood's bookworm and Homer's ticket out of West Virginia. There's fire in Quentin's eyes every time he and Hickam get a rocket off the ground. He is indeed the mouse that roared, and watching him roar is a treat.

If October Sky has a fault, it's that the last third can't maintain the pace of the first.

Perhaps the need to tell the facts of the case forced Johnston to cover so much ground so quickly that the film sometimes seems superficial; perhaps there are no more original ways to capture the reconciliation between a feuding father and son. Or perhaps there simply is no way to match the sight of yards full of work-weary people drawn from their houses to scan the chill autumn sky hoping to spot one tiny flashing point of light.

The Cold War inspired some pretty ludicrous scenarios on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It also inspired some great stories. October Sky is one of the best.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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