October Sky

October Sky

D: Joe Johnston (1999); with Laura Dern, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper. You wouldn't think that a film about rocket science could be an effective tearjerker, but October Sky works well on several fronts. Perhaps its biggest asset is that it's based on a true story (see the autobiography Rocket Boys by NASA scientist Homer Hickam), which lends much credibility to an otherwise fantastic plot. Set during the early Sixties in a West Virginia coal mining town, the film introduces us to Hickam (Gyllenhaal), a bright-eyed teenager obsessed with the tense space race between the U.S. and Soviets. After doing some homework on the subject of rockets and aviation, Homer recruits some pals and begins a series of experiments. All of this pleases his favorite teacher, Miss Riley (Dern) and angers his coal miner pop (Cooper). Soon, Homer's successfully launching homemade miniature rockets and attracting attention from a variety of sources (newspapers, scientists, and police). Obstacles constantly pop up and a climactic national science fair presents the ultimate challenge for our hero. Much of the film is predictable fluff, but director Johnston's focus isn't solely on Homer's triumphs. It's on his struggle to escape the dreary confines of the subterranean coal mines and to win his father's approval. The mine scenes are brief but effective, and as Homer's father, Cooper is a natural as a surly, yet good-hearted dad. Outside of the subject of rockets, October Sky is not too different from other dramas but maintains a simplistic charm often lost in commercial cinema. Perhaps it's the director's delicate pacing combined with the talented cast. Then again, it could be the stark contrast between a future in the underground coal mines and the prospect of reaching for the stars. Whatever the case, all of these ingredients allow the film to rise above its melodramatic potential and work as a competent biopic for a relatively unheralded American hero.

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