On October Sky

Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback MountainThe Day After Tomorrow), the first time I saw October Sky was 3,055 miles away in Washington State. I was certainly moved by it, but also knew that the act of putting me through watching this was telling of a characterization I was certainly moved by. I get a great deal of inspiration from my own life on a regular basis as I was never born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but also know many successful individuals didn’t come from money to become successful, meaning no rhetoric addressed towards me that I am somehow less capable has never really pierced my psyche – it only says much about the those who project such superficiality towards me. According to the KudosAZ article, “October Sky revisited: Modern classic for the whole family“:

On July 2, the Mary D Fisher Theater is showing the 1999 film October Sky. It is a movie that gives you the kind of pleasure that differs from the rush of smash-bang comic-book thrillers, or from the fright of hair-raising horror and surrealistic films. It won’t titillate your sense of humor at the lowest possible level of taste and morality. And it’s a true story.

The movie was a critical sensation in 1999, although not one of the great box office successes. It is based on a book, “The Rocket Boys,” written as a memoir by Homer Hickam. Homer was a high school student in a coal-mining town in West Virginia in October 1957, when the world (especially the United States) was startled by the news that Russia had launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in history.

At this point in his life, Homer and his friends are indifferent students, facing no greater prospect in their future than a life working in the coal mine. Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes along with the other townsfolk to scan the night sky for the passing satellite. When he sees it coursing across the starlit heavens, he feels himself transformed, as if his destiny is now tethered to that man-made star.

He responds to a burning desire to build and fly a rocket of his own. He enlists his two best friends, who become infected with his enthusiasm, to be his partners in the project. Homer haunts the library, poring over all the books about rocketry that he can find. The boys receive support and encouragement from Homer’s mother, some adults who help with shop skills, and especially their science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern).

She makes the boys aware that a successful project could be entered in the local science fair, from which the winner goes to a national competition, with college scholarships as rewards. Homer’s father (Chris Cooper) is definitely opposed to the whole enterprise. To him, it’s a waste of time and effort, especially since the boys should be preparing for work in the mine. He is the manager of the mine and the mine dominates his life.

The boys’ progress parallels the course of events in the U.S. space program. There are early failures, then partial successes and so on. At the heart of the story is the difficult relationship between Homer and his father, and how it gets resolved. One of the most rewarding parts of the story is the friendship that develops between Homer and Quentin, the school weirdo, a bookish nerd who is very smart but is a social outcast. Homer and his partners turn to Quentin for academic help, and they develop a strong bond with the young man. It is a subtle, but heartwarming part of the movie.

When I think of this film, I think of Leo, a lifelong friend of mine who, like Homer, was inspired by Sputnik to build and fly rockets.

You’ll find yourself pulling for these boys, crying for their setbacks, and wishing for more movies like October Sky.

Finally, according to Thinking Cinema‘s article, “Film Appreciation: October Sky“:

October Sky is a rarity-an inspirational film that avoids becoming overly sentimental. The film is an adaptation of Rocket Boys: A Memoir, by Homer Hickam. It tells the story of Homer’s teenage years in the mining town of Coalwood, W.Va. Chris Cooper and seventeen-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal could not be better as the diametrically-opposed father and son.

Their issues start with the Sputnik launch of 1957, which piques Homer’s (Gyllenhaal) curiosity about rockets. Specifically, he wonders how hard it would be to construct one. Homer enlists the help of his friend Quentin (Chris Owen) and, eventually, their friends Roy Lee and O’Dell (William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg). The four of them become known as the Rocket Boys.

Homer’s father John (Cooper) detests the whole idea. He longs for one of his two sons to succeed him in his job as a mine superintendent. John’s older son Jim (Scott Miles) has already left due to a football scholarship, so Homer appears to be the natural candidate.

Except to Homer. The Rocket Boys receive help and encouragement from their devoted science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern). The boys construct their first rocket, a failure. Undeterred, they try new fuels and designs until one of their launches succeeds. A series of successful launches ends with them getting their pictures in the local paper.

Through it all, John remains unimpressed. One day the boys are arrested, accused of setting a forest fire via an errant rocket. John seems all too eager to believe they are guilty, even after Homer and Quentin prove their innocence.

With the arrest behind them, the Rocket Boys are allowed to participate in the school science fair. They win, and their principal decides to send them to the national science fair in Indianapolis.

John considers Homer’s trip to Indianapolis a form of personal rejection. The two argue bitterly, and Homer vows he will never come home or look back.

He breaks that vow, but not until after the Rocket Boys win first prize and he meets Dr. Werner von Braun. Homer gets numerous scholarship offers. He manages to reconcile with John.

October Sky might seem an odd companion film for Baba Joon, but the two actually have a lot in common. Both involve fathers with two sons who want the younger one to enter the family business (turkey farming in Baba Joon). In both films, the son wants to do something else (auto mechanics in Baba Joon).

Another similarity is that both films are set in a self-enclosed community-a mining town in October Sky, a farming coop in Baba Joon. Moti of Baba Joon and Homer of October Sky seek to maintain and honor the traditions of home. At the same time, both young men are driven toward a different path.

To quote Hickam, “To dream is not enough. You have to do. As O’Dell said in Rocket Boys, ‘A Rocket won’t fly unless somebody lights the fuse.’ Every student has a fuse. You just have to figure out how to light it.”

 

According to Roger Ebert:

Like the hero of “October Sky,” I remember the shock that ran through America when the Russians launched Sputnik on Oct. 5, 1957. Like the residents of Coalwood, W.Va. in the movie, I joined the neighbors out on the lawn, peering into the sky with binoculars at a speck of moving light that was fairly easy to see. Unlike Homer Hickam, the hero of “October Sky,” I didn’t go on to become a NASA scientist, or train astronauts. But I did read Willy Ley’s Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel three or four times, and Arthur Clarke’s The Making of a Moon. I got their autographs, too, just as Homer sends away for a signed photo of Werner von Braun.

 

That first shabby piece of orbiting hardware now seems like a toy compared to the space station, the shuttle, and the missions to the moon and beyond. But it had an impact that’s hard to describe to anyone who takes satellite TV for granted. For the first time in history, man had built something that went up, but did not come down–not for a long time, anyway. Sputnik was a tiny but audacious defiance of the universe.

“October Sky” tells the story of four boys in a poverty-stricken corner of Appalachia who are determined to build their own rocket, and help get America back in the “space race.” It’s seen through the eyes of their leader, young Homer Hickham (Jake Gyllenhaal), who sees the speck of light in the sky and starts reading the science fiction of Jules Verne. Homer is a good student, but math and science are his weak points. He knows he needs help, and breaks all of the rules in the school lunch room by approaching the class brain, an outcast named Quentin (Chris Owen).

They talk about rocket fuel, nozzles, velocity. Two other boys get involved: Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O’Dell (Chad Lindberg). Their first rocket blows a hole in the picket fence in front of Homer’s house. The second one narrowly misses some miners at the coal mine, and Homer’s dad John (Chris Cooper), the mine supervisor, forbids further experimentation and confiscates all of the “rocket stuff” from the basement. But the kids labor on, in an isolated patch of woods, building a shelter to protect themselves from exploding rockets. They talk a machinist at the mine into building them a rocket casing of stronger steel, and they use alcohol from a moonshiner as an ingredient in the rocket fuel.

The tension in the movie is not between the boys and their rocket, but between the boys and those who think that miners’ sons belong down in the mines and not up in the sky. Homer’s father is not a bad man; he fights for the jobs of his men, he rescues several in a near-disaster, he injures his eye in another emergency. He wants Homer to follow in his footsteps. The mine may seem an unhealthy and hateful place to some, but when John takes Homer down for his son’s first day on the job, his voice glows with poetry: “I know the mine like I know a man. I was born for this.” The high school principal (Chris Ellis) sees the job of the school to send miners’ sons down to the coal mine. But a young teacher (Laura Dern) tells Homer she feels her life will have failed if some of the kids don’t get out and realize their dreams. Then there’s a crisis (did a rocket set a forest fire?), and a scene in which Homer and his friends use trigonometry to argue their innocence.

There have been a lot of recent movies set in high school: “She’s All That,” “Varsity Blues,” “Jawbreaker” (also reviewed today). In those movies, even the better ones, “teenagers” who look like soap stars in their 20s have lives that revolve around sex and popularity. The kids in “October Sky” look like they’re in their mid-teens, and act that way, too. Watching Homer get out the trig book, I was reminded how rarely high school movies have anything to do with school–with how an education is a ticket to freedom.

Perhaps because “October Sky” is based on a real memoir, Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys, it doesn’t simplify the father into a bad guy or a tyrant. He understandably wants his son to follow in his footsteps, and one of the best elements of the movie is in breaking free, he is respecting his father. This movie has deep values.

 

 

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