But the way screenwriter Lewis Colick (The Ghosts of Mississippi) draws the lines of conflict, they tighten around Homer like a noose. Colick doesn't just compress and simplify the material, he melodramatizes it. The most egregious example comes when Homer's dad is injured during a rescue mission at a cave-in and the widescreen, fictional Homer leaves school to become a miner and support the family. (He can't expect his jock-hero brother to give up a college-football scholarship.) This kind of invention dampens the euphoria and cheapens the material. The filmmakers seem to get down on their knees and beg on Homer's behalf for the audience's allegiance. This is not to say that Colick should merely have transcribed the book. Actually, he might have come up with a more authentic film if he'd fictionalized it more. In The Last American Hero (1973), Lamont Johnson filmed a real-life saga based on stock-car champion Junior Johnson that was just as valiant and full of beans as Rocket Boys. But he took pains to complicate the story and add shadows to the ethical landscape; he turned it into a morally booby-trapped, ultracontemporary fable -- less "good" but more "true." By contrast, the October Sky filmmakers reorganize and alter incidents to create cut-rate catharses and to keep the action PG-clean and free of controversy. Nobody in the film reminds an immigrant welder (Elya Baskin) who helps the boys that Werner von Braun worked for the Nazis. And if the movie has jukebox classics like "That'll Be the Day" on the soundtrack, at heart it's far more country than rock & roll. Homer's sexual and romantic yearnings amount to his realizing that he should pin his hopes on the girl who loves him, not his unreachable dream date; in the book, at least he lost his virginity.

Although there's plenty of coal dust onscreen, there's not enough of the book's homey funk. The film could use an incident like Homer's mom slipping when she goes out for heating coal in her night clothes and deciding to freeze rather than reveal her body to the dawn mine shift. Homer may still clash with his football-playing brother and divide his dad against his mother (who yearns to leave the coal land and move to Myrtle Beach), yet the film's sentimentality softens the conflicts. And the pseudo-tenderness undermines the actors. The script cedes the characters' interior lives to the group dynamics; all they seem to need is each other's sympathy. Whenever anyone does anything "out of character" -- like Dern's super-nice Miss Riley snubbing Homer in the hallway when he decides to drop out of school -- it's jarring rather than intriguing.

The movie ends with scraps of real home movies of the actual people. They leave you with the father not as a stubborn scowler who must melt for his son but as a gallant figure in his own right, dying a slow death because of the growing spot on his lung. Maybe it's the story's blend of outer space and fatherly sacrifice, but the shots of this elusive man in a fedora remind me of John Updike's dad in The Centaur, who in death finds an honored place in a constellation, though "few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars." The flickering black-and-white images are so suggestive and powerful that they momentarily wipe out your memory of Hickam's movie father.

Opens Feb. 19.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Lynn Rosemann

The first of three weekend programs at Webster University spotlighting St. Louis video artists and filmmakers, Tattoo is the feature-documentary debut of Lynn Rosemann, who runs the local production company Maven Films. (See the accompanying piece by Diane Carson for reviews of Van McElwee's and Pier Marton's work.) A fascinating, if annoyingly discursive, peek into the world of contemporary tattoo artists, Tattoo is more primer than encyclopedia, providing a sympathetic, even enthusiastic introduction to the subject but coming up far short of definitive.

The film's principal flaw is its unfocused viewpoint. The interviews with artists, commentators and aficionados seem collected at random and dictated by convenience. St. Louisans will likely delight in seeing local tattoo artists Mitch Mitchell, Craig Schuztius and Brad Fink prominently featured, but they're offered up without context: Are they intended merely as representative tattooers or are they being held up as artistic exemplars? Are they speaking as acknowledged authorities or as interested observers? These questions are key, because the answers determine how closely we should attend to the subjects, how much weight we should give their assertions. This problem repeats itself throughout Tattoo: We never have a clear fix on the half-dozen-or-so Midwestern tattoo artists we meet -- their relative status within the national tattooing community remains enigmatic -- and the academics and critics asked to comment on the subject make weak, gaseous pronouncements of scant insight (although sociologist Frederick A. Geib, who appears to have made at least an amateur study of tattooing -- the film, typically, never makes that explicit -- does offer some provocative observations).

Reflective of this haphazard interviewing approach, Tattoo lacks much of an organizing principle or unifying vision. The movie hopscotches around its subject, failing to follow up intriguing lines of inquiry, and provides only the faintest semblance of order by using title cards to introduce the often cursorily addressed topics. Nor is there a visual scheme to tie the disparate elements together: The interviewees are plopped in whatever setting is available, with background noise intruding, the cameraman annoyingly zooming and reframing, and folks occasionally wandering unawares through shots. More damaging still, Rosemann never finds a good means of displaying the tattoos -- we see them only fleetingly, and their beauty, which is often discussed and asserted, is far too seldom shown.

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