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.
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.