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IN SHORT: You will weep with joy.
On a personal note: I have been reviewing movies for a living for almost five years now. I have sat through emotional whirlwinds that have left me stunned in my seat. I have sat through such incredible crap that I wished I still had the power to get up and walk out. I have been bored, I have been pleased and I have been delighted. I have raved once or twice. But that was nothing compared to October Sky . . .
In the last (almost) five years I have not seen any movie as good as October Sky. It is inspirational. It is emotionally moving. The script feels real, the acting is top notch and the director uses visual cues to make story points so subtle that primal emotional chords are struck. You know that a great deal of thought was put into this film. Normally I shudder when I see "based on a true story" in the credits, but this film had me applauding when a picture of the real life character came onscreen.
This review is going to read like no other Cranky I've ever written, because I am rendered almost speechless with praise for October Sky.
October Sky is a story of a boy with no future in a town with no future in a time when the future of the world was in doubt. Of the fear generated when the Commies put Sputnik into orbit in 1957 and how that primitive bit of rocketry inspired four West Virginia coal-mine town boys to want more than the life in the pits they were destined for. Of the teacher that supported and defended them; the school principal who tried to suppress them. Of the inevitable confrontation between the son who wanted out and the father who expected his boy to become a Company man like him. And a mother torn between love for her son and love and loyalty to her husband.
Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia. The Olga Coal Company owned the mountain and the town and the land and the houses and the lives of all the people therein. John Hickam, his dad (Chris Cooper), was the superintendent of the Mine. John lived for the Company, showed pride for his elder son, a high school football star, and absolutely no interest in Homer at all. The tensions between the two men are palpable from the get go, and mother Elsie (Natalie Canerday) will play a critical fence mending role that elevates her part far above the caricature of long-suffering housewife and mother. Don't assume sweetness and light happy endings from the way I wrote that last sentence. There's very little sweetness and light in a town where sucking down coal dust is the way of life.
When Sputnik flew overhead, a tiny bright light in the predawn sky, Homer's world was opened. It led him to break those iron clad high school social rules that tell you not to hang out with the science geeks, in this case a real geeky looking kid named Quentin (Chris Owen). With his two best friends (William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg), this quartet begged borrowed and (literally) stole to finance their rocket building activities. At every step Homer and his dad fought about the kid's "foolishness". The defiance of the son, and the reasons for the father's reaction has roots in the story that run so deep that I can't give 'em away.
Every man I know, myself included, has had these kind of problems with his father to some extent. The story and the conflict lays out so clearly that when the tears started coming up halfway through the flick, for once I didn't mind it at all. Maybe on some level, October Sky is the "male chick flick" that I've always wondered about. Maybe I got swept up 'cuz I, too, dreamed of being an astronaut when I was a kidlet (and only made it as far as tourist at then-Cape Kennedy and at the Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama). But I digress...
In the Company owned school where the only way out was a football scholarship, the boys found support in a teacher named Miss Riley (Laura Dern). She fought her principal to get these boys to a state Science Fair, hoping that they could win a scholarship out of the town. Riley's the teacher us guys always wanted (ie. cute and interesting and supportive) but she's her own agenda to fill, and a limited timetable to fill it in. The revelation of her personal story is a true heart shredder. The subplot of the Science Fairs adds even more levels to a film that feels like it should be an epic, yet runs, incredibly, an hour forth/ forty five minutes (by my watch).
Watching October Sky is like using a telescope to look backwards in time and for this we thank writer Lewis Colick and director Joe Johnston. The recreation of Coalwood, of its people and their problems and conflicts and lives C in almost every main and supporting character in the film B is so real that you will feel as if you are really there, watching the events unfold. Watching with the rest of the crowd as these four "rocket boys" become something that no one in the entire town could ever have expected.
Not Company Men. Not Union Men. Individuals, with hopes and dreams which would lead to a world way beyond anything that anyone in Coalwood had ever done more than dream of.
And had October Sky been released last December, it would have blown my Best Of The Year list to pieces. It's a new year. Time to start a new list.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to October Sky, he would have paid...
"Must See" is overused by critics, so I won't use it. Take a date, take your family or friends or buy the solo ticket to October Sky.
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