Tuesday, January 17, 2012

OCTOBER SKY and coal

Well, I watched this movie because it came up in the library database attached to the keyword "coal."  It's not really about coal, though it's set in West Virginia in a "company town," and the main character and his father are coal miners (or, in the case of the main character, work as a coal miner for a few months).  It's about someone struggling against unlikely circumstances to be successful in a way that people don't expect or predict.  It - or the director, Joe Johnston - sets the film in West Virginia, but that's more because of the "true story" that it's based on than because of any inherent need in the film for that setting.  Homer's dad could have been a steel worker, a dock worker, a farmer, just about anything that could be dangerous or boring, and it would also work.

I think this movie is relevant to the conversation about coal, though, and sheds light on the situation of coal mining that would not otherwise be noticed.  It's a mainstream, large-scale release of a film by a major studio (Universal) with some top-name actors (Jake Gyllenhall, though he wasn't a superstar yet, Laura Dern, and Chris Cooper), and several parts of the movie take place inside a coal mine in what appears to be a realistic depiction.  It's not friendly to the coal-mining industry, but it's also not friendly to unions, either.  It's that ambiguity about the setting that really makes it an interesting study for this topic.  

Here's a link to the IMDB profile if you want to see more about the film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0132477/.  

Briefly, the main character's father, John Hickam (played by Chris Cooper) is a site manager or foreman at a mine in West Virginia.  He's grumpy, favors his older, football-playing son, and distrusts his youngest son's strange habits.  Later in the movie, after struggling with his son to contain an interest in rocketry, he is injured in a mine accident and sent to the hospital.  Homer, the main character (Jake Gyllenhall) is forced to start working at the mine, dropping out of high school.  The father recuperates, and begins working at the mine alongside his son, but Homer is inspired to return to work on his rockets and leaves his father behind.  

Homer doesn't seem to mind the job so much, though it is clearly not a good fit for him.  There's an aura of sadness (slow music, a shot of Homer staring up into the night sky watching a satellite as he descends into the coal mine), but it's not clear if we should be sad because he doesn't belong there, or because no one does.  When the mine workers are on strike, the abusive father of one of Homer's friends takes a shot at John and misses - he seems to be aligned with the union, and the union doesn't look too good when men like that are mixed with it.  There are good friends and honest workers among the miners, but none seem to favor Homer until he enters the science fair and becomes a town favorite.  

At the end of the movie, we discover that John died of black lung disease about fifteen years after the events of the movie took place.  All of Homer's friends - and Homer - escaped coal mining, and that appears to be a good thing.  Clearly, people aren't supposed to want to be coal miners.  But Homer lionizes his father, in the end, and the movie seems to make his father into a kind of blue-collar hero.  Even though the father died of a work-related illness, he was well-suited to his position and became a hero through his work.  He was fulfilled in that job, and - we seem encouraged to think - many people can be happy as coal miners.  Even though not everyone wants to be a coal miner.  

So, to summarize this into a pithy little statement: people ought to be allowed to choose what they do with their lives.  There is honor in everything, from rocketry to coal mining.  Honor comes from finding where you belong, and sticking to it.  Something like that.  

Coal mining is just another job, and some people choose to do it, and do it well.  Unions are not part of this equation.  Neither, it seems, are corporations, really.  It's all about individual choice.  

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