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October Sky

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: October Sky

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, William Lee Scott
Director: Joe Johnston
Rated: PG
RunTime: 108 Minutes
Release Date: February 1999
Genres: Drama, Family

*Also starring: Laura Dern, Chris Owen, Chris Cooper, Chad Lindberg

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Joe Johnston made a name for his special effects work in razzle-dazzle movies like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." He continued his forte by directing the fanciful "Honey I Shrunk the Kids." You can scarcely believe that this same person is at the helm of "October Sky," which has as conventional a structure as you can find in any film, enough so that it could easily be featured on prime-time TV. Yet this standard "based-on-a- true-story" tale works. "October Sky" has stature as an inspirational drama because it appears to replicate with integrity a true story about a kid who later became a NASA scientist, a position he holds to this day. At the same time it shuns the cheap sentiment of the soaps while avoiding the obligatory hipness that makes so many Sundance entries seem cut from the same cloth. This is the sort of film that may be bypassed by the high-school set intent on seeing yet another video game on the big screen. More's the pity, because "October Sky," based on Homer H. Hickam Jr.'s novel "Rocket Boys" and successfully adapted to the screen by Lewis Colick, could inspire a whole generation of young people who have no substantial heroes of their own. Proving that you've got to be a rocket scientist to get along with all the pretty girls.

Director Johnston takes us back to 1957, the year that Sputnik caused alarm throughout the U.S. and fostered a new interest, however fleeting, in the study of sciences throughout the land. As folks look up to the starry sky near the film's opening and actually see the Soviet accomplishment, they give vent to their feelings, usually expressed in cliches such as "we have enough problems right here on the Earth."

"October Sky," though, presents a sympathetic view of people often considered hillbillies and hicks by those living in more sophisticated areas than Coaltown, West Virginia, a town which was formed, named and wholly owned by the company running the mines. The boys address their fathers as "sir," the town appears to have only one drunk, and the kids in school are polite except to the one boy, Quentin (Chris Owen), whom they prochronistically label a geek. When Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes an uncommon interest in the space travel introduced by the Russian ship, he begins a letter-writing campaign to Werner von Braun, then stationed in Cape Canaveral and, together with his pals Roy Lee (William Lee Scott), Quentin, and O'Dell (Chad Lindberg), gets to work on building a model rocket. Through trial and error, the quartet fail consistently (in their first attempt they blow a hole in the Hickam family wooden fence) until they discover the best fuel and the appropriate shape to make the rocket's nozzle.

The real story, however, takes place within Homer's family, as his dad, John Hickam (Chris Cooper), looks at best with indifference at his son's hobby. John, who has worked his way up in the mines to become the superintendent, has hopes that Homer would follow in his footsteps and eventually rise to become a supervisor himself, but in doing so John comes into conflict with Homer's supportive teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), who is hostile to the mining profession and wants her pupils literally to rise above the quarry.

"October Sky" affords a powerful boost in stature for science and math, the two subjects that are avoided by so many kids today because they are considered either difficult to irrelevant. Just watch how the hero is able to discover the exact spot in which one of his lost rockets landed by using trigonometry! One has to look today to the specialty high schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant and Hunter High in New York City to find lads as motivated to succeed in a demanding pursuit as these four. Kids today, more than ever before, are being raised in single-parent homes and in households that provide them with little or no sustenance beyond the advice to "get out there and make a lot of money." Learning for its own sake has long taken a back seat to the notion of work as simply a means to an affluent end, which makes "October Sky" all the more heartening.

Director Johnston works with a cast that could not better represent the genuine people from a poor, backwoods who caused such a stir by their ambition and perseverance. Chris Cooper is altogether believable in the role of Homer's dad, alternately disapproving and sanctioning his son's aspiration, while Jake Gyllenhaal--accustomed to playing the son in movies like "City Slickers" and the TV episode "Bop Gun" from the series "Homicide: Life on the Streets"--is spellbinding. His is the glow that comes from a person when he is reaching for the sky and determined to elude anyone and anything in his way. Lewis Colick's dialogue is as square as the majority of Coaltown's people, though he occasionally tosses in some terms that were not likely used in 1957 such as "geek," "it's cool," and "if your father was alive he'd kick your ass."

When football captains take a back seat to rocket scientists, the audience will have to settle for the suspense of an awards ceremonies of an Indianapolis science fair, which substitutes for the winning touchdown in the final two seconds of a game. Brains are paramount, Braun provides the inspiration. If you're amenable to this, "October Sky" should furnish you the appropriate uplift.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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