From Here to Exurbia

Fields (and cubicles) of dreams.

October Sky
Directed by Joe Johnston
Universal Pictures

Office Space
Directed by Mike Judge
20th Century Fox

“Not since Field of Dreams has a film so touched the heart and filled the soul!” proclaims a TV reviewer in an ad for October Sky. That would be enough to keep me away–Field of Dreams didn’t fill this particular soul, it functioned as a sort of soul laxative–but I’m happy to report that the comparison is wide of the mark. The ways in which October Sky does not evoke Field of Dreams would fill a book. In fact, they do fill a book–Rocket Boys, on which the movie is based. It’s a memoir by Homer Hickam Jr., a retired NASA engineer who grew up in Coalwood, W.Va., and who got himself out of the mines (where his father was the superintendent) by throwing himself into the fledgling science of rocketry. To describe the Homer of the movie (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a lad with coal dust on his face and stars in his eyes would be both softheaded and imprecise. Homer’s eyes aren’t fixed on the Spielbergian heavens but on earthly means of getting off the ground: the mix of saltpeter and sugar that causes a rocket to soar without exploding, the shape that keeps it from spiraling into populated areas, the thickness of steel that prevents its nose cone from melting, the trigonometry that’s employed to track its trajectory. October Sky isn’t a paean to fancifulness but to trial-and-error perseverance, to a process and not an end. At its best, the movie evokes that blend of thrill and terror that comes from mixing two chemicals together without being sure that an instant later you’ll still be standing there in one piece.

On its most basic level, October Sky is a square, inspirational “go for it” picture, but it’s agreeably guileless for such a manipulative genre. The director, Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, 1991), works in a straight-ahead manner that doesn’t rough you up. The movie builds to a couple of climactic science fairs, but they’re presented almost as afterthoughts, and in moments of tragedy one’s tears are quietly coaxed instead of jerked. The tension between Coalwood’s malignant, subterranean caverns and the allure of space exploration has so much resonance that the story doesn’t need the hard sell. It opens at one of the Cold War’s cultural turning points: the appearance of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957, when the people of Coalwood (and everywhere else) gathered on their lawns to get a glimpse of the moving dot of light in the October sky. “They could be dropping bombs from up there,” says someone. “Don’t know why they’d drop a bomb on this place,” comes a voice of reason, “Be a waste of a bomb.”

Sputnik is the spark for Homer’s impulse to build rockets, but in rural West Virginia the know-how and materials are almost nonexistent. A popular student with only so-so grades, he seeks the help of the class brain, Quentin (Chris Owen), a skinny redhead with a complexion that could charitably be likened to the surface of the moon. His buddies O’Dell (Chad Lindberg) and Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) can’t believe that Homer would befriend such a geek, but it’s a measure of the movie’s grace that after a couple of early gibes the four begin to work together with a breathlessness that leaves no room for geek bigotry. Barred by Homer Sr. from launching test rockets on mining company property (the whole town is mining company property), the Rocket Boys trudge eight miles to a flat gravel plane, on which they build a block house and raise a flag. The flag-raising isn’t milked for its patriotism: It’s a deeply goofy gesture and totally consistent with its heroes’ sense of momentousness. At the behest of a vivacious teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), they’re working toward entering the state science fair and competing for college scholarships, but their true goal is simpler: making those rockets go straight and long.

Most movies about science aren’t as lucky as October Sky, which features failures more hilarious than the slapstick set pieces of any 10 Jerry Lewis pictures. There is nothing quite like a rocket that goes wrong–the power of nature harnessed to a blind, petulant dervish. There are rockets that defiantly explode before they leave the pad and rockets that spitefully take fences and vegetation with them. There are rockets that spin around in an escalating panic before blowing up and rockets that somersault off their bases and make a beeline for the nearest population center. The centerpiece of the movie is a montage of disasters to the tune of “Ain’t That a Shame,” but it ain’t a shame, really: It’s an exhilarating spectacle.

Exhilarating and a little sad. October Sky evokes an era when information was precious, when a kid could get excited about the appearance of a text called Principles of Guided Missile Design that hardly anyone knew existed. There was a connection, however small, between a thingamajig one could build in one’s garage and the stuff that was heading for outer space on NASA rockets. But there are other aspects of Homer’s existence that don’t leave you feeling so nostalgic. Worshipping Werner Van Braun (to whom the boy writes letters) seems creepy in our post-Tom Lehrer era. And just looking at the coal dust in the air made my lungs ache and an old cough come back. I won’t spoil the coda by revealing it here, but it’s the kind of coup that only movies can bring off and, watching it, I shed my first unashamed tears in nearly a year of filmgoing. (Not my first tears–the first tears I didn’t desperately attempt to conceal.)

October Sky is a good movie, but Hickam’s memoir could have yielded a great one–less formulaic, more nuanced. Homer’s father (Chris Cooper) is shown bullying the boy into abandoning his education and going into the mines, a perspective less tragically shortsighted than plain moronic, given the fact that miners are dying all around him either from cancer or cave-ins. The real Hickam Sr. didn’t want his son to be a miner but a mining engineer; he longed to see the boy follow in his footsteps but to go beyond them, too, and to use his science to make people safer. The Rocket Boys weren’t as out of sync with their culture as the film implies. By 1958, the Sputnik-shaken Eisenhower administration had made science and math a top priority in schools–one reason why science fairs had so much funding and national attention. It’s hard to buy the trumped-up scene where the principal–another myopic patriarch–warns Dern not to give her students “false hopes” (although this does give Dern a chance to do her rubber lips specialty, gazing at the principal in wordless horror while her mouth continually reforms itself like some strange Gumby creature). October Sky suggests that if it weren’t for the mothers and the female teachers, the Russkies would still own outer space!

OfficeSpace, a comedy written and directed by Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill, is about what happens to those miners when they move to exurbia and don white collars. A take-this-job-and-shove-it movie about the crushing malevolence of the corporate environment, it’s on the verge of being really good. The hero, Peter (Ron Livingston), an engineer at a generic software company, is suffocating under his boss, Lunbergh (Gary Cole), a dictator who punishes underlings from behind a strenuously mellow affect–each demand or rebuke prefaced by a seemingly upbeat “Yyyyeah.” It’s not the viciousness that’s making Peter seethe in his cubicle, but the relentlessly nonconfrontational confrontationalism of it all. When a hypnotherapist keels over from a heart attack in the middle of giving him instructions on how to relax and follow his instincts, Peter emerges with an aura of serene indestructibility and a gonzo rebelliousness that makes him, paradoxically, more attractive to the faceless consultants whom his company has hired to downsize the labor force.

The gags in Office Space aren’t anything-goes: They’re rooted in what sociology professor Lynn S. Chaucer calls Sadomasochism in Everyday Life: The Dynamics of Power and Powerlessness (the title of her 1992 book). The powerless become exquisitely sensitive to the insults of modern society: copy machines that jam, drivers who cut them off in traffic. And you can’t get away from it. As he has proven on King of the Hill, Judge has radar for corporate BS. Peter falls for a mousy waitress (Jennifer Aniston) at a theme restaurant where the bosses all look like “Weird Al” Yankovic, and employees are forced to “express themselves” by selecting a minimum of 15 pieces of “flair”–buttons with stupid slogans to be pinned on their uniforms. The sneak preview audience laughed gratefully at this, finding something liberating in Judge’s depiction of a business world that has–doubtless taking its cues from one of Judge’s own employers, MTV–institutionalized zany informality.

In fact, the audience laughed all the way through the Office Space preview, experiencing shocks of recognition big and small. But they still left disappointed. For a start, the actors’ faces are so much less interesting than the mythic, totem-pole visages in Judge’s cartoons. More cripplingly, Judge has spent too long in television, and his narrative peters out without a decent payoff. It’s a testament to the rage and anxieties that he has brilliantly tapped into that he can’t get away with a subdued conflagration and a lame twist at the end. Judge leaves us the way his bosses leave his workers: smoldering in our cells, hungering for a little confrontation.