October Sky (1999)

25 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“October Sky” has the feel a smart feel-good sports drama, mostly in the notion in that it’s not just about the sport, but about life’s ambitions and relationships. (“Hoosiers” was a great example of showing that.) But if you don’t care that much for athletics, then “October Sky” is even better for you. The “sport” in this movie is rocket-building, which doesn’t make very exciting competition. But that’s OK, because the rocket stuff isn’t competitive in the slightest. The characters in “October Sky” do what they do because they love doing it and they want to share it with people once they get it right, and hope that the people they love will approve of their goals.

“October Sky” is based on a novel by Homer Hickam and relates to the true story of Homer and his three friends who were experimenting with rocketry when they were high school teenagers in the autumn of 1957, when the Russian satellite Sputnik was first launched. Seventeen-year-old Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives in small coal mining town Coalwood, West Virginia. On the night Sputnik is seen soaring over Coalwood, Homer is amazed by the sight that man has put right up there in space, so much so that he decides he’s going to build a rocket.

His first attempt is not a successful one—it’s a flashlight with a fuse that of course explodes, and blows up part of Homer’s fence. So, Homer—who is a bright student, but science and math are his weak subjects—enlists the help of science nerd Quentin (Chris Owen) to help him and his two friends Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O’Dell (Chad Lindberg) build their own homemade rockets. Their first rocket together isn’t as successful as they imagined—they launch it, all right, but it makes its way through town, nearly hurting someone. So the boys make their own launching post eight miles outside of the coal mine and spend their days together making more rockets, hoping at least one of them will them will soar.

On Homer’s side is an encouraging, supportive teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), and his mother (Natalie Canerday) is fine with this new hobby as long as Homer doesn’t blow himself up. But Homer’s father John (Chris Cooper), who runs the mine, doesn’t believe in Homer’s dream. He thinks of it as foolish and believes he should just get his head out of the clouds and down into the mine to work. This is a town that feels like a dirty prison and the only ones that get out of here are those who get college sports scholarships. The rest are stuck to work and mine coal. And so John believes that conducting these rocket experiments, entering and winning the national science fair, and hoping to get into college is just a waste of effort, and doesn’t want Homer to even try it.

And this is where the real tension of “October Sky” lies—not merely with the boys trying to create a successful rocket, although you do really hope that they do. It’s with Homer having different dreams than his father. And his father is not a bad person—he does what he does (confiscating the rocket equipment, forbidding Homer to use it near company property) because he’s doing what he believes is best for his son. He thinks his son just needs to face reality. And he makes sacrifices at work—he looks out for his fellow workers, fights for their jobs, and when we first see him, he even saves a life. He wants Homer to follow in his footsteps. So what we have is a legitimate realistic movie confrontation between a boy and his father—not the one-dimensional arguing that you see in most movies that have this element. It’s characterized on both sides of the confrontation and played very convincingly.

The stuff with Homer and his friends building the rockets has its own whimsy and entertainment value without getting tedious (although you can sometimes predict which rocket is going to explode, during a montage, and that gets kind of old). The boys are excited about doing this, and we’re excited for them. And when they finally get one up there (and good timing too, because everyone in town is watching) midway through the movie, it’s a glorious, joyful moment.

Of course, there must be a central conflict that nearly makes Homer change his mind about what he’s doing and it’s a pretty substantial one. It starts after Homer and friends have made their first successful launch—a forest fire is said to be caused by one of the boys’ faulty rockets and so they’re forbidden to continue with their experiments again. Actually, that’s somewhat obvious, but then John injures an eye in an emergency down in the mine and has time off for recovery. Taking his place is Homer, who learns the responsibilities his father had to go through and ponders about whether he should work down there full-time. But Miss Riley convinces Homer that he should do what he dreams of doing, and that also gets Homer thinking.

This leads to Homer and his friends rejoining to work on rockets again and enter the national science fair, but first they have to figure out, using trigonometry that they learned during all of this, whether or not it was their rocket that started that fire.

“October Sky” is a wonderful movie that has deep values within it. It has a real go-for-it, feel-good spirit in the sequences with the boys making their rockets, and a real connection between a father and son that comes rare in the movies. It’s helped by intelligent writing and more-than-capable acting by Jake Gyllenhaal who gives a winning performance as Homer, Chris Cooper who is excellent and three-dimensional as John, Laura Dern as encouraging Miss Riley, Natalie Canerday as Homer’s loving mother, and Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, and Chad Lindberg as the three friends (Scott, in particular, has some pretty funny moments, even though his fake Southern accent is somewhat forcibly thick).

I will not forget “October Sky” any time soon. It’s a delightful movie that deserves to be seen by everybody. Forget that it’s a mainstream movie that doesn’t feature tired action or forced melodrama, and enjoy it for what it is—a nicely-done, well-acted, free-spirited movie that is likely to satisfy even the most stubborn of audience members.

NOTE: Here’s a fun fact I came across—“October Sky” is actually an anagram for “Rocket Boys,” the title of the autobiography this movie is based upon.

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