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Review: 'October Sky' best offering of a still-young year

Web posted on:
Thursday, February 18, 1999 11:01:10 AM EST

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- The conflicts and the plots are different, but in its tone and style, "October Sky" is very reminiscent of the 1987 coming-of-age movie "Stand By Me," which just happens to be one of my favorite films.

"October Sky," like "Stand By Me," is about a group of boys who band together to do something they could never have accomplished alone. But the boys of "October" aren't looking for a body. No, here they share an impossible dream and, just like Don Quixote, they are prepared to fight for it.

Theatrical preview for "October Sky"
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Paul's Pix: "October Sky"
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Set in 1957, "October Sky" is based on Homer Hickam, Jr.'s autobiography "Rocket Boys," in which he recounts his struggles as a young man to escape the small mining town where he was born, an escape that would allow him to literally reach for the stars.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who is currently a freshman at Columbia University, is outstanding as the young Homer Hickam, Jr. Homer, along with every other boy in Coalwood, West Virginia in 1957, is heading for a life as a miner. His brother has found a way out through a college football scholarship, but Homer is too small for sports.

Sputnik changes everything

This is just fine with Homer's father. A lifelong miner, he feels it's a noble profession and one that Homer should embrace. But when the world's first manmade satellite, Sputnik, crosses the October skies above Coalwood, Homer's life changes forever.

Not only does Homer never intend to become a miner, now he's set on a career in space engineering, a field of work that doesn't even exist yet!

Determined to build and launch a rocket of his own, Homer enlists the help of his two best friends: Roy Lee, the "Elvis" of the group, who can charm his way into and out of everything, played by William Lee Scott; and O'Dell, who can scavenger just about anything, portrayed by Chad Lindberg. The final member of the group is Quentin, played by Chris Owen. He's the school nerd, but he's also a math whiz, and soon becomes vital to the boys' plans.

Have you ever been inspired to become something? Did you capitalize on it? Is there a single event that helped set the course of your life? Go to the boards!

Laura Dern plays a physics and chemistry teacher, Miss Riley, who encourages Homer and his three friends to fight the odds and build their rockets.

At this point the movie becomes a story about blind determination and the will to succeed. Soon, the whole town becomes captivated by the boy's plan to win the national science fair with one of their rockets. If they can win this million-to-one shot, they could all get scholarships to college and tickets out of Coalwood forever.

The only one not sharing in their dream is the aforementioned Homer, Sr., played brilliantly by Chris Cooper (best known for his roles in "Lonesome Dove" and "Lone Star").

"October Sky" is a sensational character-driven story with a strong narrative and great visual style. Produced by Chuck Gordon, who also produced "Field Of Dreams," this film once again uses similar themes regarding hopes and dreams and the realization that we all have dreams -- they're just not always the same ones.

'Rocketeer' director stretches

Visual effects master-turned-film director Joe Johnston has created his best work with "October Sky." He also helmed the movie "Rocketeer," so he's familiar with things that go boom. But this time, his work has a passion and a depth of feeling that his past efforts have lacked.

At times the film becomes a Norman Rockwell painting come to life and it does get a little too cute for its own good -- the later rocket launches actually have cheerleaders from the local high school shaking their pom-poms for the boys ( this probably did happen in real life) -- plus, there is no doubt this film could have been made by the public relations office at NASA.

But it works.

All four main actors deliver career-making performances. Dern is also wonderful, but it's Cooper as the father who turns in the most remarkable job, playing a man who discovers that the only way to keep his son is to let him go.

This is such a life-affirming and uplifting film it almost makes me believe in the goodness of humanity. It also almost makes me wish I could live back in the 1950s. Then I remember -- Liberace was the number one performer in the country and television only had three channels. Forgetaboutit.

Homer Hickam, Jr., went on to become a NASA engineer. He and the other three "rocket boys" of his youth all participated in making this film.

"October Sky" is rated PG, with a running time of 108 minutes.

Book review: 'Rocket Boys'
February 18, 1999
Life without the Cold War - an exercise in alternate history

Official 'October Sky' site
Universal Pictures
NASA homepage
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