Growing up as I did in the late fifties I can dimly remember the fuss the adults made about something orbiting the earth. Of course that was Sputnik, launched on October 5th 1957, visible from the United States it resulted in many reactions. Some used this to justify and increase the fears of Communist taking over, others marveled at the pure science of the event. Fortunately, a teenaged boy, Homer Hickham (Jake Gyllenhaal) fell into the second category; he aspired to become involved in the American space program. Like many teens of that long ago era Homer read the classic science fiction from Jules Verne to Asimov, he gazed at the star lit night sky, wondering what was really out there amidst the flicker stars. While most of us where satisfied with the wondering, Homer did something about it, he started to train himself for his destined career as a rocket scientist. Homer and his friends Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O'Dell (Chad Lindberg) would chat about fuel consumption, velocity and every aspect of rocket design their growing minds could imagine. When Home builds an actual rocket and decides to test it near the local mine things go awry. His father (Chris Cooper) is the supervisor of the mine and forbids Homer form any further experimentation. The budding scientist would not let this deter them, instead of doing what almost every male in their family line did, go into the mines; they continued to reach for the stars. Almost the only adult to support the boys is their teacher, Frieda Riley (Laura Dern) who feels it is her responsibility as an educator to help thee boys dream and work towards a better life. Frieda informs Homer that wining the local science faire can lead to national competition and scholarships for college. Considering the meager means of his family and his father’s resentment of any vocation other than mining, rockets become far more than an intellectual endeavor, it is Homer’s ticket out of dank existence that lays ahead, the mines.
One of the first rules of drama in literature and films is there must be conflict. The cheap way out for this film would be to establish the usual generation gap between father and son and leave it at that. Instead, this film takes the character motivation to greater heights but making this a film of ideals, of inspiration and human spirit. In the town of Coalwood, the only life available for a young man is the mines, like his daddy and his daddy before him. Homer dreams, not only of creating rockets that soar above the blacked sky but of discovering a way for his hopes to soar to a profession that would not bring a great chance of disease and accidental death. This was a time in America that the cold war and the growing space race made it okay to be smart. America, if it was to beat the Russians, would have to be brighter, faster and more imaginative. It was out of the fear of nuclear attack that funding was made to open the way for boys like Homer. This film has at its core a message of hope that today is just as important as it was back then.
This was Jake Gyllenhaal’s first staring vehicle and right out of the gate it established this young man has talent. Reinforced by his next role, the brooding Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal demonstrates enough talent that we can forgive him for Bubby Boy. He brings an enthusiasm to Homer, a spark of hope in his eyes when he discusses his plans with the other ‘rocket boys’. There was something in his performance that was a cross between childlike wonderment and adult analysis. The danger in a role so concerned with idealism is for the actor to over play it, to push aside the humanity of the character to promote the idea. Gyllenhaal strikes a perfect balance as a young man that desires more for his future that his current circumstances would ever permit. Although you may not recognize the name Chris Cooper you will certainly remember his face and his talent from his years of work as a character actor. While is role is more strictly delaminated in this film the performance works because one dimensionality is exactly what he needed to show as Homer’s father. The man he portrays has had his whole life reduced to a myopic view, one where there is nothing beyond that mine. In such roles as Seabiscuit he was given more to work with and excelled, but here true talent shines that he can make us understand such a restricted human being. Laura Dern, like her co-star Jake, literally has the film business in her blood and it shows. She is the rare actress that can move without effort between big blockbuster, special effects laden films like Jurassic Park to moving little independent ones like Citizen Ruth. Here, she makes the teacher a person that has the ability to appreciate the importance of a child’s dream. That for life to be worth while a person must dare to change what is around them. She wants to make a difference one child at a time.
Director Joe Johnston has a unique resume that made him perfect for this film. He knows how to work a film for the whole audience to believe, consider his films ‘Honey I Shunk the Kids’ and ‘Jumanji’ in this context. He also would appear to love space and adventure, as his art direction work in the original Star Wars trilogy and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ attests. Johnston had a vision for this movie and set about giving the audience something special, a gentle film that leaves you with a good feeling as the closing credits role. While he basically stuck the actual autobiography of Home Hickman, there where a few moments that stretch the truth an bit and the six rocket boys in the book are condensed into four here. Johnston’s use of fifties music to establish the time line was a nice touch but is pretty standard now. With that aside what I was really impressed with is the way he paced the film; he permitted the ideological conflict to simmer, to grow instead of just letting it boil over too soon.
The DVD transfer was excellent. The video held together whether it was in the pitch black of the mines or lit by the stars. There were no compression artifacts to be found and the color palette full and realistic. The audio track for this special edition features both Dolby 5.1 and DTS. Both are excellent although I did find the DTS audio to have much better back fill with the rear speakers. For extras there is Aiming High, a making of feature and a commentary track by the real Homer. That track reminded me of the commentary on Apollo 13 with the real Lovells looking back through time at the events. This is a rare find, a film that the whole family can enjoy together.