Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my home town was at war with itself over its children, and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets but those were mine.
Excerpt from "The Rocket Boys"
On October 4th of 1957, the Soviets sent the first artificial satellite into orbit, heralding the dawn of the Space Age. While it was little more than a 185-pound sphere with a battery-operated radio transmitter, Sputnik (Russian for 'traveler') became a symbol of Soviet technological superiority. This groundbreaking achievement prompted the United States to accelerate the development of its own space program, which had actually started before its Russian counterpart. Though the American drive to break free of the shackles of gravity was partially spurred by the thirst for scientific advancement, a greater motivator was how Sputnik demonstrated the ability for the Soviets to send weapons of mass destruction raining from the sky above. This, of course, heightened Cold War anxieties further, especially when the Russians launched a second satellite, Sputnik II, carrying the first living organism into space, a dog named Laika. Unfortunately, the American space program took longer to get off the ground, with a number of failed attempts before the successful launch of Explorer I on January 31st of 1958.
And while the launch of Sputnik sent the two most powerful nations on the Earth into a frenzy of paranoia and political saber-rattling, it also served as an inspiration to a number of individuals who could envision the possibilities of the final frontier. One of these individuals was the son of a coal miner in the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia-- Homer Hickam, Jr. Inspired by the sight of Sputnik racing across the October night sky, Homer and five of his high school friends formed the 'Big Creek Missile Agency' which successfully launched a number of rockets between 1957 and 1960. And while some of their earlier attempts caused some property damage and raised a ruckus amongst the townspeople, their increasingly sophisticated rocket designs eventually earned 'the Rocket Boys' the Gold and Silver medal in the National Science Fair of 1960, which earned them all college scholarships. Homer eventually went on to become a NASA engineer, working on a number of projects such as the International Space Station. In the mid-1990s, he also wrote a book of his memoirs from the early days of the Space Race entitled "The Rocket Boys", upon which "October Sky" is based.
Prior to October 4th 1957, life was simple for Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal). He attended Big Creek High School, and like all the other boys in the town, he was expected to work in the coal mines after graduation. Some, like Homer's older brother (Scott Thomas), could escape on the strength of a football scholarship. But for most, the mine was all there was in this one-industry town, and so the men of Coalwood would work until the day they lost their lives, whether it was from a mining accident, or from black lung. For Homer, his destiny seemed even more immutable, given the fact that his father, John Hickam (Chris Cooper of "Lone Star"), was the manager of the coal mine. Of course, everything changed when Homer saw Sputnik for the first name, a moment that he would always remember.
In order to bring himself closer to his dream, Homer recruits a number of his friends-- Roy Lee (William Lee Scott of "Gattaca"), O'Dell (Chad Lindberg of "City of Angels"), and the class nerd, Quentin Wilson (Chris Owen of "Can't Hardly Wait"). Together, they pursue the seemingly-impossible dream of launching their own rocket, which is plagued by a number of minor catastrophe's, including the destruction of his mother's white picket fence and a near-miss at the mine. Fed up with his son's foolish antics, Homer's aloof father bans his son's dangerous hobby from company grounds, forcing 'the Rocket Boys' to trudge eight miles into the wilderness to continue their 'experiments' at 'Cape Coalwood'.
With the help of one of their teachers, Miss Riley (Laura Dern of "Jurassic Park"), as well as money raised through a number of dubious schemes, Homer and his friends become increasingly proficient in the science of rocketry to the point of entering a science fair. However, John Hickam becomes increasingly hostile towards his son's 'hobby', and insists that Homer begin seriously thinking about following in his father's footsteps. Even more troubling, the Rocket Boys also begin to question their own achievements when their feats of rocketry have some unexpected and very serious consequences. Caught between a seemingly unattainable dream of reaching the stars and the harsh reality of life in a coal mining town, Homer begins to question his foolhardy aspirations.
In "October Sky", director Joe Johnston ("Jumanji") is able to convey the sense of wonder and elation that motivates and enraptures the would-be rocket scientists, and allows the audience to share in their sense of accomplishment. And while the film goes slightly astray partway through the second act, Johnston infuses enough humor and energy to keep the action going at a lively pace. Furthermore, the young leads are quite charismatic with their earnest performances, while Cooper does a remarkable job as a distant and ornery father who genuinely believes that he is acting in his son's best interest.
Johnston also does an excellent job of juxtaposition in "October Sky", capturing one of the challenges that faced Postwar America-- the difficult transition from a resource-based to a technology-driven economy. One memorable scene captures this beautifully-- as Homer descends into the darkness of the coal mine, he looks up to the starry sky and catches a glimpse of Sputnik racing by. With moments like these, the end result is an inspirational and heartwarming film, well crafted and adeptly executed.
However, there were some areas where the film faltered, such as a number of poorly-developed plot points. For example, Coalwood is suddenly gripped with a miner strike during the second act that almost comes out of nowhere. Another plot point has a main character developing a serious medical condition out of the blue. And while these two plot points were necessary (the "Stepmom"-esque disease subplot actually happened in real life), they were not very well established earlier on in the film nor integrated with the theme of the story. As a result, their sudden appearance came across as the product of contrived plotting, which momentarily pulled me out of the film's emotional build-up.
Another area of weakness arises in Laura Dern's throwaway role as the teacher that inspired Homer and his friends. The real Freida Riley encouraged and mentored the Rocket Boys-- in "October Sky", she is reduced to the thankless task of chirping positive aphorisms and infusing some schmaltz into the proceedings, which ended up eliciting a few unintended chuckles from the audience.
At its core, "October Sky" is essentially an amalgam of the 'father-son' reconciliation tale and the 'small town boy does good' sort of film. Despite some distracting flaws, this film manages to fulfill what I consider the triumvirate that characterizes a good film-- the ability to entertain, educate, and inspire. Don't miss it.