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October Sky

October Sky
1999 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 108 min. / Street Date January 25,2004 / 14.98
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern
Cinematography Fred Murphy
Production Designer Barry Robison
Art Direction Tony Fanning
Film Editor Robert Dalva
Original Music Mark Isham
Written by Lewis Colick from a book by Homer H. Hickam Jr.
Produced by Larry Franco, Charles Gordon
Directed by Joe Johnston

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Special effects art director Joe Johnston was an excellent choice to move on to the director's chair; I personally thought Rocketeer was a fine entertainment made by someone who could appreciate an action movie that didn't have MTV cutting.

The book The Rocket Boys possibly underwent a title change so as not to sound like Rocketeer Junior. It's basically a TV movie-sized story with a superior cast. There's little room to fault a movie that says that education is the way out of a dead-end life, but several key performances are needed to rescue this one from an over-emphatic and hyped screenplay. It's very enjoyable drama that uses too much Spielberg-style emotional manipulation.


Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unmotivated West Virginia high school kid who must resign himself to going down the coal mines because there's no money for school and scholarships are only given to athletes like his brother Jim (Scott Miles). Too small for football, Homer finds his motivation when Sputnik goes over and vows to build rockets of his own. Befriending the local science nerd, they form a rocket club and soon run into opposition from all sides. Mine machinist Ike Bykovsky (Elya Baskin) is punished for helping them weld rocket motors and their classmates treat them like pariahs. Teacher Frieda Riley (Laura Dern) encourages them, but the principal doesn't believe that science projects do any good. The final burden is almost too much for Homer - his own father (Chris Cooper). John Hickam is a good man but is set on Homer joining him in the mine and brutally discourages all of this rocket nonsense. The capper comes when the four rocket boys are unjustly accused of setting off a forest fire with their ever more sophisticated missiles.

October Sky is a fine drama but falls short in its inspirational underpinnings. There's no faulting the great acting between relative newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal and the excellent Chris Cooper, an actor who routinely brings total conviction to the shakiest of roles. The father-son friction in the story is a universal experience that will stir memories in any adult, even if Dad was a benevolent saint.

The wonderful thing about the story is its willingness to stick to such a small-scale events. Shooting off rockets on a slagpile makes for about ten minutes of cute fun, and the rest of the show must deal with the less glamorous problems of frustrated high school kids in a mill town. As if terrified of dullness, the movie jams the soundtrack with pop tunes and hypes every event. Dad isn't simply anti-rocket, he's an unholy monster, at least until it's time to yield to the feel-good climactic heartstrings. The principal is a phillistine persecutor (hmm, that feels kind of accurate, actually...) and the one supportive teacher is a ray of sunshine and promise in the midst of coal-black misery. The way she sashays through the halls and stands up to male authority, you'd think Laura Dern's Miss Riley would have been given her walking papers in her first semester.

It's true that the small hamlet of Coaltown got behind Homer and his rocket boys in a communal effort, and when Homer's rocket nozzle was stolen some kind of strike accomodation apparently was made just so that a replacement could be shipped in a big hurry to the science fair. Yet the script of October Sky falls into a familiar Frank Capra/Steven Spielberg trap when dealing with all of the politics involved. Feelings are hyped over a balanced look at reality. As Coaltown's favorite son, Homer is the (worthy) beneficiary of many good deeds - most lucky kids are. But the movie shows the town rallying from afar like they're supporting Longfellow Deeds or Mr. Smith, and the proportionality gets out of whack. Although steel production is considered a national priority, coal miners work risky jobs with terrible health prospects and are given inadequate medical benefits. Yet the movie treats those durn strikers as troublemakers keeping Homer from his dreams. The way Homer's personal quest is elevated, we almost expect Ike Bykovsky's widow to step up and say she's glad her children will suffer because her husband was killed in a mine accident, just so long as Homer's dreams are fulfilled.

In other words, people who stare up at the sky in wide-eyed wonder (with a Spielbergian camera pushing in and out to swelling musical chords) are worthy humans, and everybody else is a day player.

Actually, the moral of October Sky is kind of twisted. Studying alone didn't get the boys into college, it was superstar notoriety from winning a long-shot contest that did the trick. The rocket boys beat the odds by doing an end run around the football jocks in the fame sweepstakes. Is this the right lesson for 1999? The society I see doesn't encourage going to college as the road to success, but instead holds out the dream carrot of stardom, becoming an instantaneous 'winner' through sports or entertainment glory.

October Sky ends up a far better than average drama that falls short of greatness because of this script-rigging and moralizing. An inspirational story shouldn't have to cook the books.

(Note: These are nagging thoughts and not a negative review ... my entire family cheered when Homer succeeded, while watching the movie on a cheap Blockbuster pan-scan cassette.)

Universal's Special Edition of October Sky presents Joe Johnston's beautifully visualized film in a richly colored enhanced transfer that looks good even when in the How Green Was My Valley-derived episodes set deep in the coal mine.

Fans of the show will be delighted with the extras, a commentary with the real Homer Hickam and a documentary featuring his fellow rocket boys (all still alive and kicking) and even the original school principal, a crochety old guy if there ever was one. Homer became a NASA career man, one of the beneficiaries of the science education push that followed Sputnik and IGY (remember that - International Geophysical Year?). He talks candidly about the unlikely but true parts of his story that were carried over to the movie, and only hints at certain liberties taken that weren't to his liking. The main one must have been the transformation of his father into a disciplinarian ogre, as the real Homer Hickam Sr. seems to have been a lot more sensitive, if not wholly supportive.

An aspect of Hickam's remarks that seems odd (possibly only to me) is his insistence that places like Coalwood have the values that the rest of the country needs. Even the soft-sell of October Sky shows exactly what small-town small mindedness is and does. I've had plenty of contact with hillbilly-like ignorance in both rural and urban settings, and there's little difference.

Now that the government is not even pretending that space exploration is a national priority, the ultimate direction of all of NASA's fine research seems to be bigger and better space weapons. We hear a tiny bit of lip service about a wildly premature Mars mission while the space station languishes and Washington prepares to abandon the Hubble space telescope. That militarist reality is not even addressed here - Wernher Von Braun is an unchallenged god.

Also included are a 'spotlight on location' featurette and a theatrical trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, October Sky rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, retrospective docu, making of featurette, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 1, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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