“What do you want to know about rockets?” Chris Owen
“Everything.” Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky)
A key clue that “October Sky” will not be your typical Hollywood teen movie comes early on, when the hero, Homer Hickham Jr. (Jake Gyllenhaal) points out his father to the viewers. But rather than a one-time shot of either a tyrant, workaholic or a doofus (typical Hollywood portrayals of He Who Knows Best), we get two scenes – one of which puts the man in a flattering light, the other which decidedly does not. And as the movie progresses, we get multi-dimensional portraits of the key players in young Homer’s world. His relationship to his father, a coal miner who (at first) disdains his son’s desire to create rockets like “Sputnik” whose appearance captivates the rural community, is troubled, but it ends on a positive note when Jake acknowledges that although he deeply admires Werner von Braun (an aerospace engineer), he’s not his “hero.” “You are,” Jake concludes at the movie’s end to his dad, simply but there’s nothing more that needs to be said.
Trust me, even cynics might find themselves tearing up a bit here.
Based on the memoir “Rocket Boys” (an anagram of “October Sky”), the movie takes place in the fifties when America was competing with the Soviet Union to win the space race. According to Wikipedia, the title was changed because it was believed that mature women would balk at going to a film with that title (probably correct). But whatever it’s called, it’s a memorable movie. At first, Jake is unmotivated by school, and because his family expects him to follow in his father’s footsteps, this is understandable Nor do his classmates, save for the class geek (Chris Owen) have an interest in science, despite the prodding of their teacher (Laura Dern), but that changes with the coming of “Sputnik.” This triggers Jake’s enthusiasm for rocketry, and in what may be the only time this scene in a movie does not end with someone getting a makeover, changes lunch tables in order to grill Chris. Soon the two boys, plus Jake’s friends (William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg), are busy building rockets of their own, many of which crash and burn in amusing montages, but slowly the team makes progress. Then two things happen that threaten to derail their dreams for good – one of which is a fire that is blamed on an errant rocket and another which is Jake having to temporarily take his father’s place in the mines. But the boys triumph at the national science fair, defeating, one assumes, students from far more privileged schools, and Jake goes on to work at NASA when he’s grown.
Jake is fully convincing as a youth who may well have come from that part of the country, as opposed to a Hollywood star pretending to be disadvantaged. The fact that Werner is actually a former Nazi who made a wise career change to emigrate to the US and help with its space program is handled with kid gloves, of course, so that awkward fact of who Jake admires gets smoothed over. Overall, it goes beyond the typical follow-your-heart-to-your-dreams narrative most movies of this kind are, soaring, yes, like a rocket.