October Sky proves that sometimes a movie’s strength isn’t in the story, but in how the story is told. It’s about a teenager who doesn’t want to become a miner like his father; instead, he wants to pursue a career in the burgeoning field of rocketry. The basic idea is so clichéd, Monty Python parodied it over thirty years ago (a son becomes a miner, instead of a writer like his father). But October Sky is such a warm, sweet film, that it easily overcomes whatever formulas it adheres to.
The movie is based on the autobiography of Homer Hickam. Inspired by the launching of Sputnik 1, Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) dedicates himself to building homemade rockets. His interest is further enhanced by the realization that it could win him a scholarship, enabling him to leave the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia. In a refreshing break with convention, most of the locals come around to supporting Homer’s nerdish pursuits. But his father, John (Chris Cooper), remains unmoved by Homer’s continuing success with his rocket experiments. Instead, John remains adamant that Homer prepare himself, like most of the men of Coalwood, for a life in the mines.
The chasm between Homer and John embodies many conflicts: old vs. young; old vs. new; the physical vs. the intellectual; the conventional vs. the avant-garde; the local vs. the global; and even, in a way, the provincial vs. the cosmopolitan. But although the film’s sympathies lie with Homer, John is not a one-dimensional character. Continually gruff and stubborn, John is also brave and practical. And in one of the movie’s best scenes, John, angry at Homer for having just been arrested, comes to the rescue of one of Homer’s friends, stepping between him and the stepfather who’s roughing him up. John may be a stern man, but he has principals and never resorts to striking his kids.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it champions a would-be scientist. Far too often, both technology and science are featured as things to be suspicious of, subjects that pop up only in the context of a cautionary tale. Here, the main character has to learn and apply mathematics and engineering. The movie doesn’t spend too much time on the esoteric details, but in this case, it doesn’t have a choice. After all, this really is rocket science.
Technically, October Sky isn’t ambitious, but it’s a polished film nevertheless. It includes a soundtrack of classic rock and roll songs and good performances by all the actors, especially a career-best (so far) by Gyllenhaal. There’ll always be people who’ll greet movies like this as too sentimental, but they’re more than welcome to stick to their cynicism and detached irony.Powered by Sidelines