I liked October Sky and was moved by it in all the right ways. But it’s a movie that doesn’t stand up to review very well. Two-dimensional characters and a trite story (even though it’s based on a true story) almost force me to give it a lower rating than my heart says it deserves.
While the miners of the town descend into the coal mines, high schooler Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks up to the stars to try to see Sputnik. His first glimpse of the orbiter sets his resolve: someday he will build rockets and satellites too.
Homer knows just enough about rocketry to know that he can’t pursue it alone. Since his coal-mining hometown has a definite lack of rocket scientists to serve as mentors, he decides to sacrifice his social life to befriend Quentin (Chris Owen), the redheaded nerd. Two other friends of Homer’s join them, rounding out their foursome. With Quentin’s smarts and Homer’s enthusiasm, they should be able to launch a rocket in no time.
The rocket boys master the basics pretty quickly, and they even manage a meager launch or two. But each accomplishment presents new challenges. The next rocket has to be bigger, fly farther, or have more control. They boys hit several snags, and their solutions always delight. To solve one problem, Quentin bones up on volatile chemistry until inspiration strikes. Another problem is solved by befriending some of the miners who have access to metal lathes.
In the meantime, a subplot involving Homer’s differences with his father (Chris Cooper) adds some too-harsh conflict to the film. Homer’s father is completely overbearing and totally inflexible. He’s dead-set against Homer’s dreams of rockets. Based on a true story or not, the sharp antagonism was too strong for this movie.
In fact, his father was so caricatured (blame the script, not the actor) that I was reminded of a Monty Python sketch. Graham Chapman plays a stern, hard-working, blue-collar poet. This poet refuses to stand by while his namby-pamby son throws away his life to follow his dream of becoming a coal miner. It’s a funny reversal of the cliché that this movie perpetuates.
In spite of Homer’s dad, the boys finally get a few really good rockets launched. But October Sky sticks to the formula and takes their dreams away, once and for all. A forest fire spread from where one of their rockets landed, and the boys are arrested. All seems lost, so Homer gives up rocketry and high school to get an early start on coal mining.
The film actually takes us down into a coal mine (surely it was a set). I mention it because it is something I have never seen in a movie before. From How Green Was My Valley in 1941 to Brassed Off two years ago, there have been lots of movies about coal miners. But never have I actually seen inside one of the mines, — seen how cramped, black, and precarious the mine itself feels. October Sky gets bonus points for these scenes.
But if that were the end of the story, we wouldn’t be watching it on a big screen, would we? In fact, the boys find a way to clear their names. They calculate the flight time of their rocket, do a little geometry, and track down the rocket that was alleged to have started the fire. They found it in a stream. (Strictly speaking, they never could have found their rocket from the information they had in the movie. They knew flight time and direction, but not the angle at which the rocket was launched. Without that, there’s no way to measure distance.)
Like I said, the movie doesn’t review well. The plot is trite, the conflict feels forced, and even the math doesn’t work out perfectly.
But Homer’s story was moving, and all the more so because his goal was scientific achievement. In movies with this success-story plot, the hero often wants to become a great athlete or a famous performer. Homer’s dream was more unusual and somehow less selfish.
Ultimately, the emotion of the story simply worked for me, and I’ll never be able to put my finger on just why.