October Sky

October Sky (1999): United States – directed by Joe Johnston

Rated PG  by the MPAA – contains some bad language, thematic elements, and making out

I quite like this movie; it takes me back to my days growing up in Pakistan, buying fireworks and rigging them into a homemade rocket launcher.  It’s about kids who were the same age I was, doing things similar to what I did, though in a different country.  It’s a fairly good movie, too, which never hurt anything.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Homer Hickam, a kid in high school in a small coal mining town in West Virginia.  The problem is, he doesn’t really want to follow in his fathers footsteps as a coal miner.  Chris Cooper, playing his dad, is a rough guy who much prefers Homer’s older brother because he plays football.  Playing football is more manly and makes a better coal miner out of a boy.  Homer also has a sympathetic mom (Natalie Canerday) and an inspiring teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern.)

The plot starts moving as Sputnik launches.  The town watches the sky and something inside Homer tells him that this is a special moment.  Pretty soon he’s off getting help from the whole town, especially the school nerd and his two buddies, to build his own rocket.  He hopes to get to the state science fair with his project, win a scholarship, and get out of the town for good.  Stuff happens along the way, which I won’t spoil here.

It’s a sharply made movie, no doubt about it.  Gyllenhaal plays the somewhat-outcast nerdy kid, but his performance never falls into caricature or scorn.  He likes different things than most other folks in his small town and he’s not afraid to pursue his dreams.  The supporting cast is effective, too, from his high school buddies to Laura Dern.  Chris Cooper in particular stands out, as he usually does in supporting roles.  His character shows gradual change throughout the film, something that is hard to get right in a drama.

I wasn’t too familiar with Joe Johnston as a director (I’ve seen several of his films but had no idea he made them until I did some research.)  Some of his other films have been more focused on kid fare (Jumanji, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, rather than family fare.  Here he takes a more serious turn, which is great.  Afterward he went on to make Jurassic Park III, though perhaps that wasn’t his fault.  I am very interested to see how he will handle Benicio Del Toro in The Wolfman since he doesn’t have much of a track record in horror (Jurassic Park III doesn’t count.)

What I like best, perhaps, is that it’s based on the true story of Homer Hickam, who longed to go to space.  Most of the movie is pretty faithful to his autobiography, according to Aimee, who has read the book.  Apparently, though, one significant plot device has been added (you’d have to ask someone who has read the book what it is.)  Even then it’s still quite fun.  I do enjoy the movie, especially since its content is somewhat close to my heart.  It’s a good watch for anyone who dreamed of going to space or used to make their own rocket engines.  Even if you’re not interested in explosives it’s a heartfelt telling of a true story that rarely drifts into contrived or manipulative territory.

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