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Weekly Alibi Coal Miner's Son

By Noah Masterson

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Coal mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. With a simple spark, methane gas and airborne coal dust can ignite to cause a massive explosion. If you're lucky enough to survive the blast, you will likely be trapped underground, in the dark, for hours--even days. Even if you manage to avoid a fatal accident, coal mining can still kill you in the form of a nasty, little disease called black lung. It's small wonder, then, that in 1957 a group of boys in Coalwood, W.Va., sought to escape their fate in the mines by learning to build rockets. Hell, if it would keep me out of a coal mine, I'd learn bareback riding, lion taming or even proctology.

October Sky is based on the autobiography Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, Jr., who is now an instructor at NASA. The film--and, presumably, the book--covers less than one year in Hickam's life, the year in which he first discovers his love for rocketry.

Inspired by the Russians' successful launch of the Sputnik satellite and the urgent, nationwide sense that America must follow suit, 17-year-old Homer knows immediately that he's found his true calling. His brother is a high school football star; his father runs the local coal mine. When Homer announces his plans to build a rocket, naturally he is met with derision.

But Homer is persistent. He enlists the help of his two best friends--plus the class nerd, whose wealth of nerdy knowledge proves quite handy. Early experiments result in destruction of private property and a long montage sequence of toy rockets failing to lift off properly. Maybe nitrous oxide was being pumped through the heating vents in the theater; for some reason, this sequence had the audience braying with laughter.

Without conflict, feel-good movies like this would be painfully dull. Homer and his pals meet plenty of it, mostly in the form of Homer's dad, who resents Homer's idealistic nature. Dad wants Homer to be a coal miner, just like his old man, and just like every other man in town. Homer is forbidden to build rockets.

In circumstances that would seem contrived if they weren't true, Homer is eventually forced to quit school and work in the dreaded coal mines. At first, he accepts his bad luck; he works hard and is told that he's a chip off the old block. But Homer's dreamer spirit can't be subdued, so he teaches himself advanced trigonometry in his spare time (!) and builds a bigger, better rocket. Encouraged by a sympathetic teacher (Laura Dern, in a refreshingly understated performance), Homer and his cohorts enter a science fair that opens up opportunities for national competition and college scholarships.

The end of the film turns a bit sappy and manipulative, as the whole town cheers a rocket blast and Homer and his father make peace with each other. A nice touch, however, is the final credits, in which we see grainy Super 8 clips of the real people who were the basis for the characters in the film.

What is intriguing about October Sky is its simplicity. There are hints of romance here and there, but otherwise no real subplots. Homer (played by the fairly unknown Jake Gyllenhaal) is in nearly every shot of the film. He has an impish smile that makes you believe he really is a dreamer, and his performance--which could easily have been rife with histrionic attempts to demonstrate his passion--is smart and subtle. While Homer's friends are somewhat indistinguishable from one another, they all turn in fine perfs as well.

But while the plot of October Sky is simple and direct, the underlying themes are not. This is a film about kids who are desperate to escape their destiny. They all know that--aside from a few jocks on athletic scholarships--no one ever leaves Coalwood and its mines. But when Homer tells his friends that they have a million in one chance of winning the science fair and going away to college on scholarships, those odds are good enough for them. It is the overhanging threat that four bright kids could be stuck working in coal mines for the rest of their (brief) lives that gives weight to an otherwise light film.

Field of Dreams producer Charles Gordon (not Charles Grodin, of Beethoven fame), director Joe Johnston (who directed The Rocketeer and therefore was qualified to direct another rocket flick) and screenwriter Lewis Colick have done an admirable job adapting Homer Hickam's book for the screen. They don't fabricate any steamy love scenes or car chases. They let the story, and its characters, speak for themselves. And when you realize the utterly depraved environs from which they must rise, you can't help but feel for these kids.

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