Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—October Sky (1999) ***½

PG, 108 min.
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Lewis Colick, Homer Hickam Jr. (book)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg, Natalie Canderday, Scott Miles, Randy Stripling, Chris Ellis, Elya Baskin, Courtney Fendley, Kaili Hollister

“October Sky” is the moving story of Homer Hickam Jr., who grew up in a small West Virginia mining town, and against all odds escaped the life of the mines to become a NASA engineer and trainer. The movie is based on his memoir “Rocket Boys”, which tells of how he and three other boys earned education scholarships at the National Science Fair with their experiments with small rocket engineering.

This is a very conventional movie. It has formula written all throughout it. Homer’s father is a hard-edged man who runs the mine. Homer’s older brother is his father’s favorite because he’s a football star. His father is facing increasing pressure from the union and corporate at the mine. Homer and his friends are outcasts for their interest in science instead of football. One teacher encourages them while everyone else doubts. Homer’s mother is quiet, but eventually puts her foot down in defense of Homer’s dreams. There’s a popular girl Homer likes and a less popular one who likes him. Events threaten to destroy everything the boys have worked for. There’s a last minute effort by the town to save the boy’s project; and wouldn’t you know, the dad shows up at the last minute to support his boy.

It sounds like the same old dramatic hash, but it works here in a powerful way. One reason that is, is because the father, played by Chris Cooper, isn’t an entirely unreasonable man. Although Homer has to work harder to earn his father’s respect, the respect is there to be given. The movie also understands that the people of this mining town aren’t caricatures. They don’t blindly oppose change, and they realize when they are wrong. They don’t hold onto grudges for the sake of holding on to grudges. When they witness something significant, they appreciate it.

What the boys accomplish in “October Sky” in the feat of shooting a bunch of rockets off might not seem all that significant. Joe Johnston’s direction lends a level of significance to it that matches its time period and isolated location. These things were just not done in a town like this. Johnston effectively evokes period in the mannered behavior of the characters and uses a wonderful period soundtrack the rarely ceases throughout the film. This is a heartland of America movie. It’s so well made, it’s rather cliché notions can’t be denied and seem fresher than they might in another movie. This is a great movie.

It’s also rated PG, and my boys loved it despite the fact that there wasn’t any fighting in it. There are quite a few explosions. They liked that too. It can be streamed on Netflix. 

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