In the age of cyberspace, there’s something remarkably quaint and corn-fed about the image of a boy craning his neck to follow the smoke trail of a model rocket. The kids in Rocket Boys, the recent memoir of a Sputnik-era coming of age, do an awful lot of craning and in October Sky‘s unabashedly nostalgic translation, their pastime is more than just a fond childhood memory. Looking up and projecting your desires into the sky say some basic things about what it means to be human in ways that have little to do with X-Files paranoia, rubber ears, and Trek conventions.
Homer Hickam Jr. grew up to be a NASA scientist (and bestselling author), but in 1958 he was just another white-trash kid in a Kentucky coal-mining town. Initially the picture of averageness, Homer is destined for the mine, Jake Gyllenhaal effectively playing him as a mild kid with perpetually hunched shoulders and a slow-dawning but wide smile. Homer’s life is changed when the Russians launch Sputnik in October 1958, his previously underutilized imagination not only fired up but directed into the creation of increasingly powerful projectiles.
Since Sky is aiming for a certain tear-jerking movie uplift, Homer faces the expected struggles: his borderline abuser father fulminates about “this rocket business”; the school principal warns that there’s no escaping the mines’ gravitational pull; his best friends think he’s gone plain crazy, what with all the girls around town. Homer presses on anyway and, after a kindly teacher (Laura Dern, syrupy and saintly as can be) tells him about fabled science fairs where small-town boys can win college scholarships, he risks his school-yard reputation by befriending the school outcast–science whiz in exchange for insights into combustible solid fuels and exhaust nozzles. Homer’s enthusiasm infects two more friends and the resulting quartet become the “Rocket Boys,” a nickname that starts out as a slur but is soon the stuff of local legend.
As directed by Joe Johnston, October Sky is a professionally crafted family film that reserves all its challenging moments for its characters, letting the audience bask comfortably in the approach of a predetermined warm and fuzzy ending. Still you can’t help but be moved when the inevitable ‘are they now” coda rolls: Homer may be the only one who made it to Cape Canaveral, but October Sky‘s real clincher is the more modest fact that the three other rocket boys also escaped the mines.