Looking Up To See The Big Picture: October Sky (1999)
Since the beginning of the space race, there has been an ongoing debate on whether or not space exploration is worth the cost, both literally and figuratively. Between lives lost and government dollars and resources spent, there is an argument to be made during times of political and economic turmoil, like during The Cold War, that it is not. But there is always a bigger picture to consider and hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. The story of Homer Hickam and the “Rocket Boys”, told in the 1999 Joe Johnston film October Sky, is a perfect encapsulation of the “big picture” merits of space exploration.
The story of a group of young men from a dead-end coal town who decide to try their hand at building rockets may just seem like a feel-good coming of age story on the surface, but their journey represents the importance of broadening your horizons. Homer, portrayed wonderfully by a young Jake Gyllenhaal, and his friends are severing ties with past generations and traditions. They are all sons of coal miners who were, for the most part, expected to also be miners. That is until Sputnik-1 went soaring across the night october sky, changing the lives of the people in Coal Wood, West Virginia, and the rest of the world forever.
Just seeing the small speck of light move across the black backdrop of space inspired Homer Hickam to try and build a rocket. It made him want it so much he was willing to suffer failure after failure in order to achieve it. If that sort of drive and inspiration came from a small speck of light soaring across the sky, just imagine what something like, say, landing a man on the moon could do for the human race. This is what makes October Sky a successful film, its ability to convey just how much power these kinds of achievements have.
Throughout this story, Homer breaks every single social norm established in the 50’s, which may not seem like a big deal now but given the time, it was huge. For example, he defies his father (Chris Cooper giving the film’s best performance) by pursuing the exact thing he tells him not to,. In a moment that seems ridiculous in 2019 we watch as Homer decides to approach Quentin (Chris Owen), the class nerd and weirdo, to ask for help in their endeavor. It's such a rarity that when he takes a seat the entire cafeteria goes quiet. Hell, just daring to dream as big as they did established the group of boys as sort of outcasts in their town, until they succeeded.
Getting there wasn’t an easy road though and Johnston has a blast taking us through the entire scientific process. If you are a fan of movies that show the trial and error process, that really get into the “men at work” trope, then you will love the first act of this movie. From the moment Homer, O’Dell (Chad Lindberg), and Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) almost blow themselves up in Homer's front yard, to the first successful launch, the movie really lets us stew with the process.
When they finally have their first successful launch they are immediately turned from weirdos to town heroes in a turn that reaffirms the main theme of the movie. Just seeing a group of high schoolers launch a rocket a few thousand feet in the air was enough inspiration to believe that the future was in the skies. We see this when Dorothy Platt (Courtney Cole-Fendly), Homer’s crush, asks him to sign the local paper because he’s “going to be famous one day”.
The film plays around with a lot of “new vs old” themes, especially with Homer’s relationships with many of the adults in Coal Wood. While Homer’s new found curiosity has made his father seem to retreat even further into his old ways and reject the idea of him escaping the mine almost entirely. Not every adult in Coal Wood is as stubborn as him though, and Homer receives some crucial help from workers at the mine such as Ike Bykovsky (Elya Baskin) and Leon Bolden (Randy Stripling) who both help him with some metalwork that was necessary for their success. His greatest champion was his teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern) who refused to let anyone in town dull their curiosity and who was there at every turn to back them up.
So if one unmanned satellite could inspire this much in a small town, what could space exploration as a whole do? Well, I won't walk you through the endless amount of daily technology that you use that would not exist otherwise. Instead, I will direct you to one of the most powerful moments in the film. It's a blowout between Homer and his father in which Homer exclaims “Anywhere in the world someone could look up and see what I saw”.
The space race was the first thing that connected the world on some level. It started with Sputnik, the idea anyone could look up and see the same thing, and culminated with The Moon Landing. Reportedly, an estimated 400 million people watched the live broadcast of the Apollo 11 mission, and more listened on radio. It was the first time the world was truly connected. That idea inspired four young boys to reach above their station in life and try for something bigger, something better. Thinking about this idea now, when we are all connected by the internet and can reach any corner of the world in a blink of an eye, it is stunning to imagine how large this moment must have been, when the first possibilities of that were realized in a generation. October Sky gives a glimpse into what that feeling was like, as the journey of the “Rocket Boys” inspires us still.