Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Sky High

By Susan Ellis

MARCH 1, 1999:  October Sky is the perfect family film. Based on the life of NASA engineer Homer Hickam Jr., it’s set in 1957 and tells the story of 17-year-old Hickam and three friends as they try to launch a rocket, thereby forging a path out of Coalwood, West Virginia, and escaping the sure fate of working the coal mines. It is a seamless tale of perseverance and utterly squeaky clean. No sex, no violence – I’ve seen edgier episodes of Touched By an Angel. And if the movie’s message fails to inspire the kids, you can always threaten to move to Coalwood and make them work in the mines (just be sure to leave before the movie’s postscript, which lets us know the town’s been shut down).

As the film begins, Russia’s Sputnik is flying through the air. Something about Sputnik, the mechanics, the possibilities, stirs ambition in young Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Seeing as he’s not going to get an athletic scholarship (that’s for his older brother), he decides that this rocket business may just be his ticket out of town. So he recruits running buddies Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O’Dell (Chad Lindberg), and even befriends the school’s biggest geek, Quentin (Chris Owen) to help him.

Homer’s father John (Chris Cooper) has other ideas. As supervisor of the mines, he sees the future under the ground rather than in the skies. His toughness, that part of him that makes him willing to risk his life for his men when the mine walls get shaky, makes him both a hero and an ogre. He believes in hard work, but on his own terms. That the boys devote hours of studying to make their rocket work, that they walk eight miles to and from their launch site, is frivolous to John.

Also choosing sides are the boys’ teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern), who encourages them, and the school’s Principal Turner (Memphian Chris Ellis, obviously under contract to be in all period films about rockets), who is scornful of the project.

A number of rockets go up and explode or threaten to behead bystanders. There’s a forest fire and arrests. The coal miners strike, a mine collapses, illness enters the picture, and a number of other events promise to ruin the boys’ chances at an upcoming science fair.

The pre-release play for October Sky threw out adjectives like powerful and uplifting, and it’s hard to knock a movie so weighted with patriotism, the father-son bond, and the coming together of a community. And since it’s based on true events, it’s not exactly fair to call it trite. However, you can pretty much leave after half an hour and figure out the rest. The boys will get their rocket flying and they will get the heck out of Coalwood. October Sky is a nice, solid movie, just an unremarkable one.

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