A dying genre in Hollywood is the middle budget, middlebrow fare which once dominated cinema screens. Disney, which with a voracious appetite is swallowing up the rest of the movie industry, released just 11 films in 2018, all of them massive budget and mass market affairs. Easily watchable films with plotlines that sooth America’s perpetual imperial angst will still have a home of course but that home is increasingly the Oscars not the silver screen.
The heyday of the middle budget movie was undoubtedly the late 90s. With the sexual affairs of the President on the news and without a superpower rival to focus the mind, Americans became increasingly desirous of films, normally with Tom Hanks as the lead, that were reaffirming of their national mythology. Joe Johnston’s 1999 drama October Sky,based on the best-selling memoir The Rocket Boys is an absolute exemplar.
In late 1950s West Virginia, 17-year-old Homer Hickam (played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal) is desperate to find a way out of Coalwood, his dying mining town. Inspired by the launch of Sputnik and his teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern) he and his friends begin rocket experiments in the hopes of winning the National Science Fair and receiving a college scholarship. Naturally, he does so and ends up working on the Space Shuttle as an engineer for NASA.
What elevates this story above a somewhat inane morality tale about the virtues of hard work and inventiveness are the strong character relationships. Coalwood is a company town through and through, it exists to service the mine and Homer’s dad John (a wonderfully stern Chris Cooper) is the company superintendent. In his view, coal is in Homer’s veins and getting strange ideas about rocket fuel and machining exhaust nozzles is worse than silliness but actively a betrayal.
As tries to save his town from grasping corporate bosses and an increasingly restive labour force to have his own son declare coal is not his future is simply unacceptable. When he nearly loses his eye in a mining accident, rather than reconsidering his career John is simply delighted his son will have to take his place in the shaft. Homer, for his part, can imagine nothing worse than risking his life deep inside a mountainside that is close to depleted. The son learning to appreciate his father’s sacrifices and the dad to believing in his son’s dream forms the strong emotional centre of the film.
Johnston is from a technical background and the movie from the yawning blackness of the mine to the warm oranges and browns of the backwoods is universally beautiful. Unfortunately, the great weakness of October Sky is that for a movie that invests such effort into the look and sound of 1950s small town America it cannot help but realise it through the prism of Clinton era liberalism. The awful condescension of posterity falls on those for whom, unlike Hickam, did not see in Sputnik the wonder of spaceflight but the balance of nuclear terror. The New Deal appears not as a time of rising living standards but as often literally violent disruptions to labour peace. As so often with period dramas, the society truly depicted is not the past but a certain kind of present.