If you need an antidote for the cynicism of most new movies, the cozy, old-shoe virtues of October Sky may be just the ticket. Based on Rocket Boys, the recently published autobiography of Homer Hickam, who retired from NASA last year after two decades of service as a payload specialist, the film is as TV-earnest as an “Afternoon Special” — it speaks from the heart.
The time is 1957, the year the Russians launched Sputnik. But in Coalwood, West Virginia, the townsfolk keep their attention focused mostly on the coal mine from which they make their living. Homer, well played by Jake Gyllenhaal, 17, is an exception. Instead of following his father, John Hickam (Chris Cooper), into the mine, Homer would like to follow the lead of his spiritual father, rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, into the skies.
Rockets fascinate Homer. He has already loaded a flashlight with powder from cherry bombs and destroyed the fence of his mother, Elsie (Natalie Canerday). Now, with the help of his friends Roy Lee (William Lee Scott), Odell (Chad Lindberg) and Quentin (Chris Owen), Homer moves on to more-sophisticated stuff. Their teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern, at her most warmly appealing), encourages Homer and the boys. Still, Homer’s dad sees no future in space and reminds his son that his duty is wrapped in coal dust.
Cooper is the kind of unassuming, underrated actor who can play tough and tender without slipping into caricature. Still, the family conflicts here are sketchy and unsurprising, and the screenplay by Lewis Colick (The Ghosts of Mississippi) does little to lift the dialogue above the mundane. Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) wisely takes his passion from the boys. The real drama in the film is watching them blow shit up as they experiment and learn. They set up a launch pad on a dump site, persuade machinists at the mine to build rocket casements, and triumph at a science fair that brings national attention to Homer and his hometown. Even Homer’s dad offers grudging admiration.
October Sky doesn’t track Homer into his career with NASA. Its prime virtue is in staying true to the small details. The film is rich in period flavor and refreshingly unhip. Though sex, drugs and rock & roll are as remote as the moon, the sound of Elvis hints at shake-ups to come. During one school year, Homer and the rocket boys blast off into futures their parents didn’t decide for them. Corny? Sure, but you could do worse than throw it a salute.