There's a full 304 days left before the end of the millennium, 304 days until our peculiar 20th century expires. Strangely, there are many who will weep for it. From Tom Brokaw to Steven Spielberg, it seems that we can hardly get enough of the middle of our century. Of this year's five Oscar contenders for best picture, only two were not set during the heady days of World War II. For reasons well beyond the ken of movie reviewers, the only other era that seems to stand a chance in the nostalgia sweepstakes is pungent Elizabethan England. Still, the smart money is on the '40s and '50s.
This is because of the Baby Boomers. To the Baby Boomers (the evil cabal that brought us the mini-van, President Clinton, and the total homogenization of America), the middle of the century was the time of their birth. Since repudiating the rebellion and anger of the '60s in favor of the ridiculous comfort of the late '90s, the Boomers have returned with lemming-like ferocity to their pre-political childhood.
It's easy to be cynical about this return. While the '40s and '50s did offer more opportunities for heroism than our current age of contentment that was only because they were set against the backdrop of a bloody century's most brutal conflict, WW II, or its most hypocritical and exploitativethe Cold War. Movies like Spielberg's shameless Saving Private Ryan epitomize this fatuous assessment of the age. And it would be tempting to write off Joe Johnston's October Sky for the same reason. It would also be a mistake.
October Sky is set in the tiny town of Coalwood, West Virginia on the day that the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnick, began whirling around the planetmuch to the dismay of the United States. Or most of the United States. For Homer Hickam, standing in his yard and watching as the satellite glides silently overhead, the moment is a revelation. Homer's going to build himself a rocket.
What stands in Homer's way, and what makes October Sky such a refreshing look at the era, is his father. Homer's father, John Hickam, is played by Chris Cooper with a seriousness and intensity that threatens to wash the other characters away. John Hickam is a man looking at the end of his world. He is also one of the best movie fathers to be seen in recent memory. Like October Sky as a whole, John Hickam seems ready to lapse into cliché at almost every moment and then deftly turns away. Our first sight of him is as a hero, saving a man from a cave-in at the coal mine where he is the foreman. No one is allowed to bask long in the moment though as a vicious tirade, and a firing of the injured miner, reveal that there is more going on behind Hickam's furrowed brow than we may suspect.
No one understands this better than his son, Homer, whose desire to escape the gray hollers of Coalwood becomes a slight that his proud father cannot bear. For Homer, too small to be given a football scholarship, which is the traditional road out of Coalwood, building a rocket becomes both his literal, and metaphorical, wings. In truth, October Sky has about as much to do with rockets and Sputnick and the Cold War as Impeachment had to do with blow jobs. No, October Sky is about a much older, and more profound, conflictthe battle between fathers and sons.
It is to the credit of the real Homer Hickam and to screenwriter Lewis Colick that the battle is played out with such impressive honesty. The kind, open face of Jason Gyllenhaal, who plays Homer Hickam, works in touching counterpoint to his father's work-hardened mask. Unfortunately, few other characters rise to the level of John Hickam. A few of them, especially Laura Dern as the sweetly inspirational high school teacher, serve as reminders of the kind of vacuous '50s redux movies that are so easy to make; and so hard to watch.
Only the town of Coalwood itself proves up to the match. Like Hickam, Coalwood is a tormented place behind its quaint '50s veneer of corner stores and white picket fences. Union troubles, failing mines (though remarkably unified raciallyapparently there are some aspects of our past that are better just glossed over) and Appalachian poverty are as prominent in the mix as utopian boyhood antics. In the end, Coalwood is hardly from the '50s at all. Its sooty buildings, muddy streets and coal mine are simply from an older eraand one that is ending.
In the end, it's the struggle for an honest assessment of the past, of childhood and parents and changing times that makes October Sky worth watching. The other approach, the sentimental glorification of the mid-century in the name of senseless pride and sculpted memory, is what allows us to forget ourselveswho we are and how we got here. Perhaps there are those Boomers who have forgotten the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."