October Sky is the perfect family film. Based on the life of NASA
engineer Homer Hickam Jr., its set in 1957 and tells the story
of 17-year-old Hickam and three friends as they try to launch
a rocket, thereby forging a path out of Coalwood, West Virginia,
and escaping the sure fate of working the coal mines. It is a
seamless tale of perseverance and utterly squeaky clean. No sex,
no violence Ive seen edgier episodes of Touched By an Angel.
And if the movies message fails to inspire the kids, you can
always threaten to move to Coalwood and make them work in the
mines (just be sure to leave before the movies postscript, which
lets us know the towns been shut down).
As the film begins, Russias Sputnik is flying through the air.
Something about Sputnik, the mechanics, the possibilities, stirs
ambition in young Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Seeing as hes not
going to get an athletic scholarship (thats for his older brother),
he decides that this rocket business may just be his ticket out
of town. So he recruits running buddies Roy Lee (William Lee Scott)
and ODell (Chad Lindberg), and even befriends the schools biggest
geek, Quentin (Chris Owen) to help him.
Homers father John (Chris Cooper) has other ideas. As supervisor
of the mines, he sees the future under the ground rather than
in the skies. His toughness, that part of him that makes him willing
to risk his life for his men when the mine walls get shaky, makes
him both a hero and an ogre. He believes in hard work, but on
his own terms. That the boys devote hours of studying to make
their rocket work, that they walk eight miles to and from their
launch site, is frivolous to John.
Also choosing sides are the boys teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern),
who encourages them, and the schools Principal Turner (Memphian
Chris Ellis, obviously under contract to be in all period films
about rockets), who is scornful of the project.
A number of rockets go up and explode or threaten to behead bystanders.
Theres a forest fire and arrests. The coal miners strike, a mine
collapses, illness enters the picture, and a number of other events
promise to ruin the boys chances at an upcoming science fair.
The pre-release play for October Sky threw out adjectives like
powerful and uplifting, and its hard to knock a movie so weighted
with patriotism, the father-son bond, and the coming together
of a community. And since its based on true events, its not
exactly fair to call it trite. However, you can pretty much leave
after half an hour and figure out the rest. The boys will get
their rocket flying and they will get the heck out of Coalwood.
October Sky is a nice, solid movie, just an unremarkable one.