MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Jake Gyllenhaal (Homer Hickam), Chris Cooper (John Hickam), Laura Dern (Miss Riley), Chris Owen (Quentin), William Lee Scott (Roy Lee), Chad Lindberg (O'Dell), Natalie Canerday (Elsie Hickam), Scott Thomas (Jim Hickam), Randy Stripling (Leon Bolden), Chris Ellis (Principal Turner)
"October Sky" tells the true story of Homer Hickam, a West Virginia teenager who eventually realized his dream of becoming a NASA science engineer. It was a long road to that accomplishment, though, because Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) grew up in the mining-dominated town of Coalwood in the late fifties, where all the boys either escape on football scholarships or follow their elders' footsteps into the mines. He also had little or no support from his father, John (Chris Cooper), who could not understand why his son did not want to succeed him as supervisor of the local mine.
The movie opens in October 1957 when, like the rest of America, Homer takes notice that the Soviets successfully launch the Sputnik satellite. However, unlike the rest of his small town, he uses it as inspiration to make something more of his life. Together with his two best friends, Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O'Dell (Chad Lindberg), and the high school math whiz, Quentin (Chris Owen), Homer begins designing model rockets to shoot into the sky. Building the rockets out of spare parts in Homer's basement and enlisting the help of some of the machine workers at the local mine, the four boys make gradual progress.
Their first attempt blows up, destroying half of the white picket fence in front of Homer's house. Numerous other attempts send rockets careening out of control, most of which eventually explode. Undeterred, the boys continue reading and learning about rocketry, eventually building rockets that shoot more than a mile into the sky on a straight trajectory. They are given support by their school teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), who sees their rocket-building as an opportunity to enter the state science fair and possibly win scholarships to college, thus taking them away from their predetermined life in the coal mines.
While a wide-eyed teenagers' dream to be a rocket scientist doesn't exactly sound like rollicking material for a feature film, director Joe Johnston, an ex-special effects whiz who has helmed FX-heavy movies like "The Rocketeer" (1991) and "Jumanji" (1995), brings a sense of life and vitality to the story. The screenplay, written by Lewis Colick ("Ghosts of Mississippi") from Homer Hickam's autobiography, makes use of a number of reliable stock dramatic scenarios, the most of obvious of which is the tension between an old-fashioned father who doesn't understand the yearnings of his son. Played badly, these scenes would clunk mightily, but the fresh-faced Gyllenhaal and old pro Cooper (a veteran of numerous John Sayles films) give fine performances as son and father.
Cooper, especially, is saddled with a tough role, where he must constantly skirt the line of being an overbearing but essentially decent man. His character is a man who obviously shows favoritism toward Homer's football-playing older brother, Jim (Scott Thomas), and at one point he is accused of loving the coal mine more than his own family. However, there is something in Cooper's eyes that gives the character an extra dimension; a small glint that lets us know he is stubborn, not cruel.
The four young actors who play the "Rocket Boys" are all up to the task, although it is only Homer and, to a lesser extent, Quentin who come out as true characters. Quentin stands apart simply because his pimply face, red hair, and glasses--his classic geek characteristics--make him stand out from the others, who are all conventionally handsome in a boyish sort of way. Roy Lee and O'Dell sometimes fade into the background, not that it has too much consequence on the story as a whole. This is, after all, Homer's story, and Gyllenhaal holds the center of the film well.
"October Sky" doesn't seem like much on paper, but it is an entertaining, smart movie that is calculated to satisfy the all-American notion that anyone can do anything as long as he tries hard enough and never stops believing. From "Rocky" (1976) to "Rudy" (1993), this has traditionally been the territory of the sports movie, and for "October Sky" to insert something so brain-oriented as rocket science instead of football was a risky move. Imagine that--a movie where the dream fulfilled is not to win the big game or be crowned prom king, but simply to succeed in life. The producers of this film should be congratulated because they have successfully crafted a feel-good movie experience that asserts the importance of using one's mind over one's brawn.
©1999 James Kendrick