Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern
What an absolutely wonderful little film this is. Based on a true story, from the book “Rocket Boys” by Homer H. Hickam, Jr., it tells the tale of four boys living in Coalwood, West Virginia, who defy their perceived destinies to become coal miners, in the footsteps of their fathers and their fathers before them, by turning their attention instead to building rockets.
The tale begins in October 1957, just as the Russian satellite Sputnik is launched and space history is made. Not only does Sputnik change history but it changes the lives of Homer Hickam, Quentin Wilson, Sherman Odell and Roy Lee Cook, four ordinary high school boys.
When Homer spies the satellite streaking across the night sky, it is in that very moment that he knows precisely what he wants to do with his life and that’s reaching for the skies by building rockets not digging in the earth for coal and eventually dying of Black Lung Disease as so many men did back in those days.
If you were a man and lived in Coalwood there was pretty much only two things you did do and that was either mine for coal or get out of town on a football scholarship. Homer’s older brother Jim was destined for football greatness but as far as their father was concerned, Homer was destined for the mine. So when Homer breaks the news to his father that he wants to build rockets, the elder Hickam doesn’t take too kindly to the idea. In fact, he is tries to drag Homer’s dream right to into the dirt.
It is Homer’s persistence and indomitable spirit that forces him to rise above his deficiencies in science and mathematics as well as convince some of his peers that building rockets is really a terrific way for them to rise above Coalwood. They wheel and deal their way into getting some of the men at the mine to help them weld the parts they need for their rockets, in addition to involving themselves in downright theft, by taking what they can’t afford to purchase. At one point, they’re even seen prying up abandoned railroad tracks to sell the quality steel for expensive heat-resistant metals.
Nothing stops them from achieving their goal until one day when there is an accident in the mine and Homer’s father is severely injured. In other to save brother Jim from having to quit school to support the family, Homer resigns himself to take his father’s place in the mine. It’s pure misery and dashed hopes until his father returns and Homer takes a stand against him, vowing never again to “go down there”.
The boys again reach for the stars and continue their experiments with the support of most of the townspeople. The only one unwilling to waiver is Homer’s father who refuses to attend any of the rocket launchings.
But you can’t hate the father; he is portrayed as an incredibly righteous and honorable man and coal mining is all he knows. He is constantly torn by Coalwood realities versus the love he instinctively has for Homer.
Chris Cooper as the father is so good you’d swear he’d been mining coal all his life. He portrays every nuance of this incredibly strong character with all his conflicts and contradictions. Jake Gyllenhaal is equally terrific as Homer and Laura Dern is Miss Reilly, the supportive school teacher who wants so much for the boys in that town to see past the coal mine.
Lotta says this is an inspiring, well written film to capture your heart. Highly recommended. Make sure you watch through to the credits to find out what became of each of the real life people.