Rated PG - Running time: 1:48 - Released 2/19/99

The arrival of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, was clearly a major moment in history. Every movie about the American space program uses it as a starting point, and Joe Johnston's October Sky is no exception. Based on the true story written by NASA worker Homer H. Hickam Jr. about his own starting point in rural West Virginia (and adapted for the screen by Lewis Colick), it is the tale of a young man's dream to escape his coal mining town and shoot for the stars. Johnston, who made his name doing special effects for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, has this time turned his attention toward a more interpersonal story. October Sky is full of rocketry, but it is more a character study than a pyrotechnic marvel.

Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives in Coalwood, West Virginia. As its name implies, Coalwood is a mining town; in fact, just about every male who lives there either works in the mines or plans to work in the mines. All agree that it would be nice to "get out of" Coalwood, though, so when Homer's brother gets a football scholarship, the family is thrilled. But his dad, John (Chris Cooper), is not at all happy with Homer's rocket-making hobby, sparked by the new Soviet star crossing the sky every few hours. Expecting him to follow in his and his father's footsteps, John tells Homer, "you'd better start taking an interest in your town." Luckily, Homer's science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), encourages him, and some friends (Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg) share his interest.

Their early efforts are marred by the same kinds of explosions and failures as NASA's (albeit on a smaller scale), but the boys gradually refine their methods until they are able to make successful launches, which are attended by a growing audience of curious townsfolk. But when John is injured in a mine accident, Homer must go below to fill in while he recovers. It is the first time in his life that his father is proud of him, but Homer's first taste of coal dust only strengthens his resolve to rise back up to the surface and continue his rise into the heavens.

This film is based on a true story, and it is a nice story, but the screen adaptation is overly melodramatic. Hickam's book Rocket Boys may be more realistic, but writer Colick (who penned the excellent Ghosts Of Mississippi) asks us to swallow a lot of emotional pandering and trite characterizations to get the point across. The performances are good, however; especially that of Laura Dern and Chris Owen, and Gyllenhaal's relationship with Cooper reflects the frustrating kind of love between a father and son who operate on completely different wavelengths. Though shot in Tennessee, Johnston's October Sky successfully evokes the stifling atmosphere of a blackened 1950s town in the southern West Virginia mountains. ****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive