Grade: BOctober Sky (1999)

Director: Joe Johnston

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern

Release Company: Universal/MCA

MPAA Rating: PG

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Joe Johnston: October Sky


Donnie Darko, Italian Movie Poster, 2001
Donnie Darko, Italian Movie Poster, 2001
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Based on a true story, October Sky has the same “feel good” family style messages that you find in Rudy, Hoosiers, and Field of Dreams. This shouldn't be too surprising, as producer Carl Gordon also headed Kevin Costner's 1989 baseball film. You essentially have a young man with a seemingly unreachable dream who fights against the odds to win. Instead of using football, basketball, or baseball as the vehicle and the Midwest as the setting, this time we have rocket science as the vehicle in a small coal mining community in West Virginia.

Like all movies of this genre, the plot is predictably positive-- bring your Kleenex to wipe your eyes. You'll need it. Definitely family fare, though rated PG for mild profanity, October Sky doesn't stack up as great film art, but rates as enjoyable fare that has an uplifting message, but more on that later.

The film begins nicely with the 1957 October radio broadcast of the Russian launch of Sputnik and scenes of a West Virginia mine. In Coalwood, young men either work in the mine or get a football scholarship if they are lucky. Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) has guts but doesn't have the football talent of his older brother, nor does he want to work in the mine. This sets up a conflict with his dad, effectively played by Chris Cooper (Lone Star, American Beauty, and others). The senior Hickam is a boss in the coal mine, and he knows the mine as well as the back of his hand and actually loves the odor of coal dust.

Countering the traditional view of Homer's father is the schoolteacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern), who wants her students to reach for whatever goals they want and not limit themselves to the dreary life promised by Coalwood. She talks to her class about the possibilities opened up by Sputnik that at first are only understood by the class geek, Quentin.

Homer is curious though, and becomes entranced that evening when the whole town turns out to watch Sputnik pass overhead. You can see the dream in Homer's eyes, and we know that he is forever hooked on rocketry and destined to move beyond this tiny hamlet. This scene brings back a lot of memories for me. I remember similar nights going out in the back yard at the appointed hour, gazing up at Sputnik, and attempting to fathom the stars. I also recall how suddenly there was a new push in school for more science and math to get ahead of the Russians. There was a new urgency to forge ahead in these two fields due to that one Soviet satellite.

Sputnik connects Coalwood to the rest of the world. It sparks Homer to risk being a high school social outcast to team up with Quentin, and to bring his other two buddies along to pursue rocketry. They become fanatics, spending their after school time in Homer's basement designing their rockets. Their dream of winning top honors at the National Science Fair is a 1,000,000 to one shot, but what other chance do these 50's “geeks” have to win a scholarship. Never mind that no one from the hillbilly country of West Virginia has ever won before.

As you would expect, there are plenty of obstacles along the way. The rockets fail numerous times, their classmates tease them, the Principal belittles their efforts, and Homer's dad alternates between blocking his son and helping him in little ways. After having a successful launch in front of the community, things really look bleak when the young scientists are charged with starting a forest fire. Homer even quits on his dream, drops out of high school, and goes to work in the mine. There's a poignant scene that communicates a great deal that you can see in the trailer—the scene with Homer being lowered into the mine as he is looking up at Sputnik overhead in the star studded sky.

I won't reveal any more of the plot, in case you haven't seen the film yet. But as long as you have at least two functional brain cells, you already know.

While most people who watch October Sky will be moved by the basic plot, other charms to the movie touched me. Most notably is the father-son relationship subplot. Ask most men, and you'll find that they have had issues with their fathers. Often this comes down to seeking love and acceptance.

John Hickam is a complex man who practices “tough love.” He can seem really hard on his workers and especially on his son Homer, yet you also understand that he does care for people and does love his son. He shows this in his actions—saving one man's lives before firing him, and letting Homer take some extra cement for his launch pad.

Obligatory confrontation scenes and reconciliation scenes occur. Homer wonders why his dad always has time to attend his older brother's football games, yet never can take the time to see one of his rocket launches. Later, Homer declares his independence and lets his dad know that he is leaving Coalwood and will never take over his dad's position in the mine. I could almost feel his dad’s disappointment, yet we also witness John hold back from verbally destroying his son’s dreams.

Two parts get my tear ducts watery each time I see October Sky, similar to the final scenes in Field of Dreams when the father and son come together. The first scene is when Homer tells his dad that he hopes that he can be as good a man as he is, and in referring to NASA engineer Werner von Braun lets his dad know that “he isn’t my hero.” Immediately after this John surprises Homer by appearing at the final rocket launch. When his dad awkwardly puts his arm around his son's shoulder, it's time to break out the Kleenex.

Additionally, the film contains some good scenes of coal mining. These scenes certainly convinced me that I would never want to be confined to that lifestyle—living in unstable underground passages and digging your own grave. Coal Miner's Daughter is the only other film that comes to mind that depicts the lifestyle effectively. October Sky also demonstrates that people do need to look towards the future and adjust. Continually there are references to the possibility of the mine closing down, which would mean shutting the whole community down. John Hickam wants to ignore the cold facts and keep the mine going, passing on the reigns to Homer, but it is not to be. We learn in the postscript that the mine was shut down in 1965.

If you're looking for a positive, uplifting family film with great values, you will enjoy October Sky. It is competently constructed and has characters that you actually grow to care about. Sure, it's predictable and emotional, but sometimes we need to become inspired with a success story. This one will do the trick.
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