Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1999) Part 1

5. October Sky

After directing four feature films focused just as much on special effects as actual story, it's evident that Joe Johnston was ready to try something different. For his next movie, he would make a movie that focused far less on CGI monkeys, giant globs of animated paint, or stop-motion insect. However, his fifth feature would have something in common with “The Rocketeer.” “October Sky” is also about rockets. The film would be adapted from “Rocket Boys,” the autobiographical novel by Homer Hickam. “October Sky” would win some of the best reviews of Johnston's career but was only a moderate success at the box office.

The year is 1957 and the Soviet Union has just launched Sputnik. This doesn't affect life in Coalwood, West Virginia much, a poor mining town in the southern part of the state. However, it changes the life of Homer Hickam. Son of a miner, Homer is immediately fascinated by the possibility of space travel. Recruiting a group of friends, Homer begins building home-made rockets in his backyard and around town. His father, who wants Homer to focus on his inevitable fate as a coal miner, disproves of his son's hobby. The rocket launches make Homer and his friends local celebrities. Soon, Homer starts to hope that the rockets could get him accepted to a state science fair, which could get him into a good college and out of Coalwood. But challenges await the boy.

“October Sky,” in many ways, is not an especially distinguished biographical drama. It hits most of the beats you'd expect from a film about dreamers trying to achieve the impossible while trapped in a dead end town. Hickam faces typical societal pressures. His dad, the school principal, and many of the townsfolk all repeatedly challenge his dream. The movie was released in February, so it presumably wasn't positioned as Oscar bait. Which is surprising because “October Sky” seems like it would fit right in with that crowd. It's an inspirational story based on fact, with flashy performances from actors playing real historical figures.

However, the film does earn a lot of good will with its setting. Yes, “October Sky” is set in my home state of West Virginia. Though I grew up in the Eastern Panhandle and Coalwood is in the southern part of the state, I can declare that the film nevertheless perfectly captures the unique local flavor of West Virginia. I absolutely recognize the sparse but reedy forest the characters live around, the small and dilapidated town that is often under a gray and dreary sky. This is what autumn in West Virginia is like. It's rare that I see my home state reflected in a film and it's even rarer to see it reflected accurately. So “October Sky” makes me smile for that reason alone.

In addition to accurately capturing a sense of place, “October Sky” also does a good job of capturing its time as well. By beginning with Sputnik 1's launch, the film cements its late fifties time frame. Interestingly enough, the paranoia of the Cold War era and the tension of the space race does not affect life in Coalwood very much. That's because rural West Virginia in the fifties wasn't a place people easily got out of. Further education was rare and all the townsfolk were destined to work in the mines. This wasn't without strife either, as union conflicts eventually explode into violence. It's a complicated world “October Sky” exists in.

Telling a more character-driven story for the first time in his career, “October Sky” presents new opportunities for Joe Johnston as a director. Visually, this is a strong looking film. All of “October Sky” is characterized by an especially autumnal warmth. The leaves on the ground are shades of brown and red, a gorgeous combination. Johnston begins the film with a montage of mine carts and other sights around Coalwood. These moments bring a dreary, cold feeling to much of the film, further establishing how desolate this location is for the people who live there. Johnston establishes a clear difference between the dark mines under the town and the dreams of the skies overhead.

The moments in “October Sky” that work the best for me revolve around the sense of fun and adventure Homer and his friends have while building their rockets. There's an amusing montage of their various successes and failures, many of the rocket launches ending in explosions. There's even a moment were they buy some moonshine, using the pure alcohol to make more effective rocket fuel. It's no surprise that Johnston excels at fast-paced sequences devoted to teenage boys making their own fun and having adventure, as the “boys' adventure” atmosphere is what has driven most of his movies up to this point.

“October Sky” also earns points for the complexity of Homer's relationship with his father. Homer Hickam and his dad frequently do not get along. His dad dismisses his interest in rockets, especially once one goes astray and lands in the mining town. Yet, for as often as they argue, Homer and his father find middle ground as well. Homer does admire his dad, as someone who can think straight in an emergency and saves people. During one pivotal moment, John Hickam protects one of Homer's friends from his abusive step-dad. After Homer works in the mines for a short period, excelling at it, the son earns his dad's respect. Yet they still have arguments, John still not understanding his son entirely.  Neither are right or wrong in these situations. The details are more difficult than that.

Further cementing “October Sky's” status as an “inspirational true story” drama is the way the script throws more and more inconveniences at Homer as he goes about his journey. When a fire is started near-by, his rockets are blamed. This brings both the local cops and the school down on Homer and his friends. From there, John Hickam is injured in a mining accident, forcing Homer to become the man of the house and work in the mines. This stuff at least makes sense within the story. It's when Homer goes to the Indianapolis science fair and has part of his display stolen that “October Sky's” drama starts to feel a little on the contrived side. I haven't read Hickam's book so, I don't know,  maybe it really did happen that way.

“October Sky” was an early leading role for Jake Gyllenhaal, predating even “Donnie Darko” and “Bubble Boy.” It's easy to see why Gyllenhaal would go onto a successful career. Jake not only resembles the teenage Hickam but he matches that boyish enthusiasm. The sheer look of joy on his face, when seeing Sputnik for the first time, is so believable that you buy every decision the character makes from that point onward. His arguments with his dad never seem overdone or hard-to-believe. His challenges and struggles read as relatable. It's a magnetic performance and a star-making turn.

It's important to “October Sky's” success that the trio of boys around Hickam are as believable and interesting as he is. Well, at the very least, the actors involved do a decent job. Chris Owen, perhaps better known as the Shermanator from “American Pie,” is perfectly nerdy as Quentin Wilson. Owen fulfills the expected nerdy character aspects but creates a more nuanced character too, especially once Homer sees his dilapidated home life. William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg do fine in their parts as Roy Lee Cooke and Sherman O'Dell. At the very least, both performers put on pretty good West Virginian accents.

The other stand-out performance of the film is Chris Cooper. The film was released the same year as “American Beauty,” meaning Cooper was somewhat typecast as dysfunctional dads in 1999. (It's also not his only West Virginian mining movie, as he was also in “Matewan.”) Cooper is very good in the part, never loosing sight of John Hickam as a real person, whose stubborn personality goes hand-in-hand with his ethics. Cooper makes it clear he loves his son, even if he doesn't always understand him. Laura Dern also has a notable part as Miss Riley, the teacher how encourages Hickam to pursue his interest in rockets. If anyone is good at being inspiring and sweet, it's Dern. Yet Natalie Canerday as Elsie Hickam, Homer's mom, is probably my favorite supporting role in the film. She shows a quiet grit and determination in the face of her sometimes uncompromising husband.

”October Sky” received little attention in theaters but, let me tell you, West Virginians love this movie. In high school, anytime a science class of mine was having a movie day, this was what we were watching. A festival celebrating the film is held every year in the state, formerly in the real life Coalwood and now in near-by Beckly. I'm not surprised West Virginians are so eager to celebrate the film. Usually, when our state is in a movie, it's about inbred hillbillies or moth-people or some such thing. It's nice to have a middlebrow, appeasing, and generally successful drama to call our own. (The appreciation of the film seems to have spread elsewhere as well, as there's also now a stage musical version.) Certainly, it's a good film, well acted and beautifully photographed. Even if it's totally typical of its genre, unambitious in many ways. [Grade: B] 

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