On a hot summer night at the age of around 10, I'd somehow managed to bully my parents into letting me stay up and watch the movie that was about to start on TV. As always, I'd tried this on without knowing what the film was, willing to take my chances; if it was rubbish, I could yawn and safely slink off after 30 minutes or so, pride intact. As I settled in and the opening scene of The Rocketeer unfolded, aided by James Horner's beautifully evocative score, I knew I was watching something special.
The film, set in Los Angeles, 1938, follows the story of champion stunt pilot Cliff (Billy Campbell), who accidentally crosses paths with some mobsters while testing out the new Gee Bee racer that mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) has built for Nationals, ultimately ruining the plane. Completely shattered, the two head back to the hangar to assess the damage, only for Cliff to find a strange rocket left hidden under the seat by one of the escaped mobsters. Ever the experimenter, Peevy concedes that they should test its capability and see how it works, but he makes Cliff vow to return it right after. Unfortunately, the mob and the man who owns the package, Hollywood actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), discovers the pair have the rocket before they have the chance to return it, embroiling Cliff, his girl Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), and Peevy in a conspiracy far exceeding the reach of their own small lives.
For all its retrospective oddity (a Nazi secret agent in Hollywood with a pretty terrible accent—oh Timothy Dalton, the last 15 minutes of the film were not your best work) and occasional farfetchedness, The Rocketeer is a remarkably polished film. All areas of the production work together to create a cohesive, believable and exciting world of adventure, and one that comfortably inhabits the historical space between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II.
Director Joe Johnston (most recently at the helm of Captain America: The First Avenger) manages to bring together all of the elements and ensures there's a little magic in each. The costume design evokes a definite 1930s propaganda feel, especially the Rocketeer's leather jacket and his custom-made, now iconic helmet; the production designer took equal care with the ramshackle little diner and the airfield, as well as creating a truly atmospheric South Seas Club set; the lighting and camera moves look big budget without being big budget ($35 million, very little considering the output); and lastly, the actors inject their performances with just the right mix of humour, wonder, and romance. On top of all this, there are some particularly memorable lines in the film and the progression of the story has a carefully metered pacing that delivers quick-fire comedy one moment, and emotionally charged significance the next.
On a thematic level, The Rocketeer stands out as a good example of the portrayal of strong female characters in film. Although Cliff is desperate to protect Jenny, she's the one who really ends up saving his bacon; she gets in on the action as much as any of the male characters and uses her intelligence (as well as her feminine wiles) to get herself out of trouble. Pretty, but not rail thin and sickly looking, she's a character, to me, without an ounce of apology about her person, but equipped with a strong moral compass.
As a kid and a budding film-lover, The Rocketeer signalled independence: a call to an adult world with characters, places, and experiences decisively outside of my own. The moment Cliff shouldered that rocket pack and clicked the buckle into place—his face alight with wonder—I knew that if you held a mirror up to my own face, you'd see the same expression. The way I saw it, the movies and The Rocketeer, in particular, opened up everything and had the power to pull you into a world or possibility. The illusions, the magic tricks, and the special effects were second to the emotions they brought out in the audience. I thought that if I could ever get close to making anyone feel that way, I would have served my purpose. These lines in the final scene do me a service in summing up how Cliff feels about having been the Rocketeer for a moment in time, and how I felt watching it:
Howard Hughes: What was it like, strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat outta hell?
Cliff: It was the closest I'll ever get to heaven, Mr Hughes.
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