I remember when this film first came out back in 1998, I had little interest in seeing it. Couldn’t exactly tell you why, but I remember that the trailer really didn’t grab me. When I was offered the opportunity to review the film’s new “Special Edition” DVD released at the end of January, my wife urged me to agree to a review.
And after watching October Sky, I’m glad she did.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really enjoy this film. I was moved by the relationship between Homer and his father, and thought the tale was inspiring. The fact that it is a true story makes it all the more wonderful.
The tale surrounds Homer Hickam, a high school senior who becomes awed by the sight of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, as it streaks over his home in the night sky. Suddenly filled with the desire to build a rocket, he enlists his two friends, and a nerdy outcast, to help him. Over the course of the school year, the boys get help from several people in their town.
Homer’s interest in rockets further damages his relationship with his father, the manager of the coal mine that employees the majority of the town. His father pressures Homer to take a job at the coal mine, but Homer constantly refuses, wanting nothing more than to get out of the town.
Failure after failure threaten to prevent the boys from attending a local science fair that holds the promise of college scholarships, but help from an unlikely source may make their dreams of life away from the mines come true.
This story is far from unique, but its grounding in truth helps make it original. Hollywood is chock full of inspirational stories about a man or woman who overcome the odds and leave their small town for fame and fortune. The difference here is that no one is looking to be famous, they just want a life better than working in the coal mines. It’s a more down-to-Earth mentality that is easily relatable and at the same time, feels more personal.
Virtually everything is done right here, from the direction to the acting to the writing. It’s a strong story with grounded performances and just enough realism to put you in the late 1950s. My only complaint would be the opening montage. The images of the miners and the town are good, but the fading in and out is sort of jarring.
I’ve only seen Jake Gyllenhaal in one other film, The Day After Tomorrow, but I thought he did a great job as Homer. He seemed comfortable in the role, but there was a moment or two were he didn’t really seem to be in the moment. Chris Cooper, however, delivers a perfect performance as his father. He’s a man who carries the world on his shoulders, at least the fate of the town, and struggles every day to keep it up and running. He fights the company to save jobs, and he fights the union to keep the mine operating. I think it’s probably safe to say that Cooper doesn’t do less than 100% when he agrees to take a role, and is undoubtedly one of our finest character actors.
What I really appreciated most about this new Special Edition DVD was the documentary, “Aiming High: The Story of the Rocket Boys”, which details the real men and women the film is based upon. There are interviews with the Rocket Boys, and each of them discuss their experiences and how their lives changed as a result of working on the rocket project.
Another great feature is the audio commentary by Homer Hickam, who wrote the book the film is based upon. He discusses the film, his book, and explores how the movie differs from reality. He doesn’t do it as a criticism, but as a terrific dissection of where a film my alter facts and compress events in order to tell an effective story.
One of the biggest issues I have with films based upon real events or people is how much they often alter the truth. The fact that the DVD helps sort out the truth from the fiction is just plain outstanding.