October Sky (review)

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How Green Was My Satellite

I love movies at the end of which, as the credits roll and the lights come up, I’m sobbing my eyes out and smiling and declaring, “That was a great movie!” all at the same time.

I needed two hankies at the end of October Sky.

Based on the memoirs of a NASA geek, this is the true story of Homer Hickam, who was so inspired by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when he was a high-school senior, that he decided to take up model rocketry, in an era before they came in kits from the hobby store and in spite of the fact that he became the butt of his small town’s jokes and incurred the disapproval of his father.
I admit, October Sky‘s subject matter is near and dear to me. Science, science education, and America’s space program are badly underfunded and misunderstood, and any movie that demonstrates well the drama and fun of science gets a gold star from me. (If you’re looking for a worthy charity to throw a few pennies at, please consider The Challenger Center, founded by families of the Challenger astronauts in their memory to help fund and support science education in America. End of public service announcement.)

So perhaps it’s not such a mystery that although October Sky‘s plot is predictable I was still moved to tears by it. We know Homer today works for NASA, so there’s not much suspense to be found in his story — of course he wins the science fair, of course he wins the college scholarship. I could reduce the film to How Green Was My Valley meets Dead Poets Society, but that would be terribly unfair. For woven in with the simple story are subtle examinations of human desperation, perseverance, and imagination; a tender exploration of a rocky father/son relationship; complex characterizations; and wonderful performances.

Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal), growing up in a West Virginia coal-mining company town, has always been expected by everyone — including his father, John (Chris Cooper), the mine boss — to become a miner himself. When Homer develops his sudden interest in rockets and expresses a desire to study science in college, his father takes this as a personal rejection — John is “confused” by his son, and hurt, and can’t really see the importance Homer’s chosen profession will have in the future. “We got enough to worry about down here,” he warns Homer, for the new, bewildering information age is sweeping away the old, comfortable industrial age in less personal ways as well. While the impending failure of the town’s mine is of course a natural event, it is nevertheless a perfect metaphor for the passing of an industrial society — and John can foresee the coming extinction of his livelihood and his way of life even if he’s not sure what will replace it.

Two beautiful, linked moments — one right at the start of the film and another toward the end — astutely and delicately highlight the wistful knowledge we sometimes have that history is passing us by. As the film opens, an old miner heading to work listens to news of Sputnik‘s launch on a transistor radio held to his ear. The camera lingers on his melancholy face as the elevator descends below the surface, the radio’s signal gradually fading, and the old man raises his eyes aloft, at the sky — he knows he’s seeing a touch of the future, but he’s also aware that he will miss much more. Later, Homer’s dream is sidelined, he believes for good, when he is forced to go to work in the mine. On his first day, as the elevator slips belowground, he also gazes upward through the cage to the night sky above and sees Sputnik streak by. The heartbreakingly plaintive expression on his face shows us that he is painfully cognizant that he’s going to be missing out on making history.

October Sky, gorgeously shot in muted colors, is directed with a sure, light touch by Joe Johnston, whose previous films such as The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids didn’t hint at his real ability. Part of what makes the film better than it might have been is the casting of real actors (as opposed to pretty faces — though Jake Gyllenhaal, with his big brown eyes and wide smile, is, I must say, a lovely young man). Chris Cooper is intense yet contained as Homer’s father, and never lets John become a bully or bad guy. Natalie Canerday is superb as Homer’s mother, demonstrating magnificently in her relationship with her husband how it’s possible to love someone so much that you can hate him. And Gyllenhaal as Homer is fabulous — he gives Homer the passion and fierceness he needs to draw us into his story and make us feel his uncertainty and apprehensiveness even as our view from outside the story denies us that feeling on our own.

I can’t say too many wonderful things about October Sky. Go see it.

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