October Sky (1999)

Obsessions can be dangerous things. We know how they can drive people to do the most shocking deeds. Serial murderers, psychopaths, hoarders—we’ve seen them all, at least on television. But obsessions also tread on the realm of possibility, by allowing ordinary people to dream the unthinkable. Crazy ones, we call them. “Rocket Boys,” a bunch of them were called in a small coal mining town in West Virginia, 1957.

“What do you want to know about rockets?” Quentin asks Homer. “Everything,” he says. After seeing Sputnik 1 cross the skies, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) aspires to one day reach outer space. Encouraged by his teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern), he and his friends fashion crude rockets with the hope of entering the national science fair and winning college scholarships. But rocket-making proves to be a difficult venture, and Homer faces failure after failure, attracting the ire of his perennially disapproving father (Chris Cooper).

Based on Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys, October Sky chronicles the beginning of a lifelong adventure. A biographical film, it joins the ranks of inspiring, based-on-real-life movies like A Beautiful Mind, complete with black-and-white title cards detailing what happened afterwards. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, however, October Sky follows a more familiar formula for conflict: an ambitious youth struggling against his critical father. But that concerns the material itself. What is interesting about this movie is that, both in the film and in Homer Hickam’s life, there is a clear opposition between the boy’s desire to reach the sky and the town’s insistence that his life be spent underground, in the mines. The desire to escape is palpable, that much is clear, but that the opposition be this striking is in itself worth wondering at.

When the Rocket Boys succeed in launching their first rocket, everyone rejoices. Beyond the initial amazement, I think the townspeople felt this victory all the more because it directly opposes their everyday reality. The last scenes are particularly poignant because of this. In that last rocket, in Homer, the people of Coalwood caught a glimpse of a life beyond coal mining. Perhaps for the first time, they saw the possibility of a different life.

While not groundbreaking in any way, October Sky does elicit that warm, fuzzy feeling that characterizes successful feel-good movies, and—barring undeniable lapses into dramatic fictionalization—succeeds in portraying its material in a credibly realistic yet emotional manner.

‘Look at it go, Homer. This one’s gonna go for miles.’

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