OCTOBER SKY is a tough sort of film to get people to look at clearly.
Touted in its marketing campaign as "inspirational" and "triumphant" --
usually code words for "sentimental" and "heavy-handed" -- it could easily
lead more cynical movie-goers to dismiss it sight unseen as mawkish
foolishness. Others, of a more feel-good nature, will think they have
seen a great film simply because, well, it makes them feel good. It's
hard for both potential sets of viewers to get a handle on why OCTOBER SKY
works -- it avoids most of the traps the former group fears, while
delivering the satisfying emotional resonance the latter group desires.
Set in 1957, OCTOBER SKY tells the true story of Homer Hickam (Jake
Gyllenhaal), a 17-year-old high school junior in the mining town of
Coalwood, West Virginia. Lacking the football skills of his older brother
Jim (Scott Miles), which has been the only way out for most Coalwood
youth, Homer seems destined to work in the coal mines like his father John
(Chris Cooper). That's until the extraordinary event of October 1957 --
the launch of the Soviet rocket Sputnik -- inspires Homer to work on his
own rocket. Recruiting classmates Quentin (Chris Owen), Roy Lee (William
Lee Scott) and O'Dell (Chad Lindberg) to assist him, Homer sets out to
create a rocket that will land him in the National Science Fair.
Unfortunately, Homer's primary detractor is an important one: his father,
who believes Homer's quest is a fool's errand.
This, of course, is the cue to begin your typical triumph of the
spirit, winning-against-the-odds, kids-wiser-than-their parents
crowd-pleaser. In some ways, the elements in OCTOBER SKY are quite
typical: a determined young hero, societal obstacles, a big climax at a
competitive event. Yet there are enough ways OCTOBER SKY is not typical
to make it surprisingly effective. Director Joe Johnston, best known for
special effects-driven films like JUMANJI and THE ROCKETEER, lends energy
and humor to the montage of failed initial attempts at rocket flight. The
production creates a complete, convincing picture of its small-town world,
treating its characters with a clear-eyed realization that they're neither
simple hicks nor salt-of-the-earth country folk. And there's something
fundamentally, unconventionally appealing about a film where teenagers are
obsessed with an intellectual pursuit, a film where the protagonist proves
his innocence of a suspected crime by using a mathematical formula.
It is also unconventionally appealing to see a father-son
relationship treated with such sensitivity and intelligence. Certainly it
helps that an actor as subtly gifted as Chris Cooper is playing John
Hickam. Too many actors would have made him a gruff thick-head who
converts to understanding just in time for a big hug; Cooper makes John's
stubbornness both caring and slightly dismissive of a boy acting smarter
than his own pa. Jake Gyllenhaal is equally enjoyable as Homer, making
his fascination with rocket science an expression of his desire to explore
the universe beyond Coalwood. The interactions between John and Homer
form OCTOBER SKY's emotional backbone, and nearly every one of them is
pitched at a level of conflict which seems honest rather than
There are a number of occasions when OCTOBER SKY does begin to feel
like its more convention-bound cousins. There is an obligatory romantic
sub-plot for Homer which appears and disappears so quickly that there
hardly seems to be a point; an illness experienced by Homer's favorite
teacher (Laura Dern), while historically accurate, further bogs down the
narrative. The last half-hour of OCTOBER SKY is not nearly as well-paced
as the first hour, dragging out Homer's journey to the National Science
Fair, but that doesn't detract from the film's many pleasures. OCTOBER
SKY is inspirational, and it is triumphant; it's also smart, well-written,
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