Friday, October 3, 2014

Film Friday: Rocket Boys/October Sky

I was in sixth grade when my teacher, Mr. Harrison, encouraged our class to go see the film October Sky for credit. My dad, whose love for space exploration started as America leapt into the Space Race, went with me to the film in the spring of 1999. The movie stars a young Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern, who I was only familiar with because of her role in Jurassic Park. The film recreated the late 1950's beautifully, thanks in part to director Joe Johnston (he also contributed to the Indiana Jones series and directed two of my other favorite films, The Rocketeer and the first Captain America.)

The movie, at its heart, is about overcoming obstacles and challenges. Homer, played by Gyllenhaal, sees the Soviet satellite Sputnik fly over his mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia and it triggers the spark of an idea that he wanted to build rockets and go into space. Spurred on by his teacher Miss Riley, Homer  and a group of other boys set off to build rockets that fly ever higher. Of the other Rocket Boys, Quentin is the most memorable. But as with most lofty goals, there are road blocks along the way, particularly disapproving parents, a town that doesn't understand rocketry, and using materials that have a propensity to explode. Then, there are the successes...

Chris Cooper plays Homer's father wonderfully as a man who isn't a villain, but rather more like the dad in Mary Poppins, a man who doesn't understand why his sons wouldn't want to go into the mines he's loved working in or take up rocketry. Laura Dern is terrific as Miss Riley and the supporting cast is well-rounded. The score by Mark Isham is terrific, using a fair amount of string instruments as an ode to the usual sounds of Appalachia. Overall, a fantastic movie. Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

Fourteen years after watching October Sky for the first time, I picked up the book it was based on, Rocket Boys. It's a shame I didn't read it sooner because as good as the movie is, the book is even better. The memoir delves into events not in the movie (JFK makes an appearance) and creates an even better sense of the time and place. Essentially, the film is about not giving up your dreams while the book is more of a snapshot of a time and place that hardly exists anymore (the Coalwood mine closed in 1986). As a print journalist facing the new world of an exploding online media, I was reminded of what Homer's dad must have been going through seeing the town mine starting to decline and the new possibilities of technology Sputnik represented.

Some of the struggles in the movie are better exemplified in the book. In particular, a teacher refuses to teach Homer a higher math class because the school is only "a football and coal miner's school." Also, in the movie, Homer voluntarily works at the town mine for a period, but in the book, he is brought down to the mine to shadow his dad to learn engineering. As a result, the dad is even less of a villain-like character in the book. In reality, there were six Rocket Boys while in the movie, there were only four. Other side characters, like the newspaper writer who publicizes the boys' launches and some of the other high schoolers, are a delight unique to the memoir. The book is well-written and the attention to detail in recalling the era of the late 50's and early 60's is superb. Of the books I read in 2013, Rocket Boys was my top-rated and with good reason. Rating: 5/5 stars.

And to think it all started as a teacher's credit assignment. Thanks, Mr. Harrison.

Today marks the beginning of the Rocket Boys Festival in Beckley, West Virginia. Beckley is a town of about 17,000 an hour and a half or so northeast of Coalwood. For more details on the festival, click here. For more details on the Rocket Boys and where they are now, click here.

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