Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Rocketman: Jake Gyllenhaal Reaches for the Stars in “October Sky”

Some people’s lives seem just destined to be a movie. Take Homer Hickam, a teenager whose life was unended when—along with other residents of tiny Coalwood, West Virginia—he watched Russia’s Sputnik 1 pass overhead in October 1957. Mesmerized by the possibilities of space travel, he gathered some friends and some rudimentary equipment, then started to experiment with rocketry on a larger and larger scale. None of this pleased his father, a much-respected superintendent at the local coal mine, who expected his son to someday follow in his own footsteps. But the local science teacher, an ebullient young woman, believed in the ambitions  of the amateur rocketeers, She foresaw that if they could capture first prize at the county science fair, they would earn a trip to a national convention in far-away Indianapolis. The end result, she hoped, would be college scholarships for four bright lads who (not being good at football) had no other hope of paying for college educations.

 There were, needless to say, ups and downs, including a brief tangle with the law when the four  were accused of setting off a forest fire with one of their experiments.  All of this was set down in Rocket Boys, a best-selling 1998 memoir by Hickam, who grew up to be a NASA engineer charged with training astronauts. He’s covered other aspects of his eventful life in additional books, crafted a Rocket Boys musical, and also tried his hand at writing fiction.  Clearly he's a man of many talents, and one who’s also been blessed with a lot of good luck. After all, he could easily have spent his life, as so many of his friends and neighbors did, slogging away in a coal mine. And dying, as his father did, of black lung disease.

 When words on a movie screen note that the film we’re about to see is “based on a true story,” we’re always entitled to a certain amount of disbelief. And so I watched October Sky, the 1999 film that evolved out of Rocket Boys, with a certain sense of skepticism. (Sidenote: the title October Sky, which points to the impact of Sputnik passing over that West Virginia town, is an anagram of Rocket Boys. Why? I have no idea.)  Though I enjoyed this modest film thoroughly, its story seemed a bit too good to be true. Were the boys of Big Creek High School really taken in hand by a pretty and dedicated teacher, one who was secretly dying of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma? Did Homer’s strict but loving father, who disapproved of his son’s rocketry “hobby,” really stay away from every one of the early rocket test launches, even though the rest of the town turned out en masse to see what the boys were up to? Did that same father finally show up for the triumphant final launch, and find himself given the honor of pushing the button that ignited the rocket? According to Hickam’s own commentary, this is exactly what happened. (By the same token, he encourages fans to read a more complicated version of his story in Rocket Boys.) 

 The age-appropriate Jake Gyllenhaal—then barely 19--broke into the Hollywood mainstream with his portrayal of Homer. Laura Dern played the inspirational teacher who hides her personal woes from her students. The key role of Homer’s father was played by Chris Cooper, who’s always convincing as a tough but tender blue-collar guy. Other players were unfamiliar to me, but all showed their comfort with an authentic-sounding West Virginia twang. Following your dreams into space: what a nice theme for a family-centric movie.




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