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'Sky's' Predictable Forecast

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 1999

  Movie Critic

October Sky
Chris Cooper, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal play a father and son at odds. (Universal)

Joe Johnston
Jake Gyllenhaal;
Chris Cooper;
Laura Dern;
Chris Owen;
William Lee Scott;
Chad Lindberg;
Natalie Canerday;
Scott Thomas
Running Time:
1 hour, 48 minutes
Contains nothing objectionable, except infrastructural suspense in the mines
NASA science engineer Homer H. Hickam Jr., the youngest son of a coal mine supervisor in Coalwood, W. Va., received his life's calling on Oct. 5, 1957. That was the day the Russians beat the Americans into space with Sputnik, the world's first satellite.

Rejecting a future of chipping at bituminous coal and possibly contracting black lung disease, Hickam picked up the Soviet gauntlet and began designing his own rockets at the age of 14.

"Rocket Boys," his Capraesque autobiography, has been turned into a similarly misty-eyed movie called "October Sky" that pays tribute to his boyish dream. As Homer, Jake Gyllenhaal brings a sweet-natured, all-American exuberance to the movie. And Chris Cooper puts extra flesh on Homer's father, a union-despising supervisor with a hacking cough who expects Homer Jr. to follow him underground.

When Homer gets his harebrained notion to aim for the stars, he starts off by blowing a hole in his mother's rose garden fence. From then on, he spends his time trying to design the perfect rocket, gleaning what he can from books, and securing help from anyone willing to give it.

Homer meets predictable resistance from his father as well as his school principal, who believes all students should learn just enough to go down into the mines.

But he has his circle of support too: Miss Riley (Laura Dern), an inspiring teacher who believes in breaking convention, a nerd called Quentin (Chris Owen) with engineering smarts, and Homer's pals (including William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg) who help him steal raw materials from railway tracks or fuel from moonshiners, and stare open-mouthed as he lights the umpteenth fuse.

There are appealing moments thoughout. There is some amusing slapstick, for instance, during the requisite montage of failed launches, when Homer's rockets do everything but shoot vertically. And the movie does try to give an authentic sense of West Virginia family atmosphere, helped by Cooper's soot-black presence.

Unfortunately, you can see most of the story's trajectory arcing before you from the very beginning. There's little in this movie, directed by Joe Johnston and adapted by Lewis Colick, that comes as a surprise. And there are a few too many cutely canned moments: "Let 'em have outer space," says one of Homer's friends when the Sputnik news first comes out. "We got rock 'n' roll."

Essentially, "October Sky" is another Universal Pictures paint-by-numbers feel-gooder, in which Homer and his friends decide to win a national science fair for their little town and, ultimately, for America. Will the father and son come to some kind of understanding? Will they both learn a little from the other in the process? And could that soaring rocket be a metaphor for the American Dream and youthful ingenuity? Producer Huck Gordon, who made "Field of Dreams" for Universal, has clearly built "it" again. Once more, he's hoping "they" will come.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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