With the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the great space race that dominated the 1960's and beyond began. Not only did that tiny satellite strike fear into many Americans' hearts, but it also motivated President Kennedy and NASA to reach the moon first, thus paving the way for the heroics of legendary astronauts such as John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, just to name a few.
It also motivated many people who went on to be the unseen heroes of the NASA program -- those who worked behind the scenes to get those astronauts and their rockets into space -- and the wonderful, "feel good" film, "October Sky," tells the true-life story of one of them.
It's of no surprise that the story of Homer Hickam eventually made it to the silver screen. The tale of a young man with a big dream, it's filled with obstacles and setbacks that impede our hero's quest and are the makings for good, big screen drama. To top it off, it's set in the "can do" era of the late 1950's and 60's that permeated the American spirit and subsequently made films like "Apollo 13" such popular and sentimental favorites among moviegoers.
Although this smaller scale film lacks the star power and grandiose setting of that fabulous Ron Howard picture, it's just as pleasing and should catch a good ride from the positive word of mouth that will surely follow its release.
Based on Hickam's autobiography, the film follows the well-traveled, but still effective plot of a young man who wishes to break free from his seemingly predetermined life. While it's not readily apparent how much artistic license and subsequent dramatic enhancement director Joe Johnston ("Jumanji," "The Rocketeer") and screenwriter Lewis Colick ("The Ghosts of Mississippi") have taken with Hickam's story, the plot -- despite its general familiarity -- works quite well.
Perfectly balancing the boyhood and blooming scientific exuberance of that era with the timeless father/son relationship struggles, the story successfully unfolds on several levels. Despite the standard-issue, dramatic arc that dips into times filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles and setbacks, there's little doubt it will bounce back as the film can't help but exude that "feel good" atmosphere that makes it a surefire audience pleaser.
From the fun and amusing montage sequences of the boys unsuccessfully trying to launch their rockets (set to the obligatory, but still enjoyable 50's soundtrack), to their teacher's encouragement and the inevitable, lump in your throat finale, the film has all of "the right stuff" to nicely complement its bigger budget Hollywood cousins that have dealt in one way or another with NASA's early efforts.
The performances are solid across the board. While there's no Tom Hanks or Ed Harris to carry the picture, the lack of well-known performers actually works to the film's benefit. Keeping the proceedings on a small scale, the talented but lesser known cast doesn't get in the way of the storytelling. Instead, they deliver believable performances that perfectly fit into the film's overall delivery.
Leading the way is Jake Gyllenhaal ("City Slickers," "A Dangerous Woman") as the young man who continually bumps his head into the town's artificially constrictive ceiling. Despite not being the teen heartthrob guaranteed to pack in the teenage crowed, Gyllenhaal delivers a fine and completely believable performance. In doing so, he quickly garners and then holds the audience's collective sympathy throughout.
While Chris Cooper ("The Horse Whisperer") and his stubborn and dedicated character will most likely elicit the polar opposite response, he likewise delivers a good performance. Epitomizing the father figure most every adolescent has had to deal with at one time or another in their lives, Cooper gives a head on take as the tough parent who, despite all outward behavior to the contrary, really wishes the best for his kids. Although his character borders on a cliché, Cooper gives that extra effort that makes him believable.
Supporting performances from the likes of William Lee Scott ("The Opposite of Sex"), Chris Owen ("Can't Hardly Wait), and Chad Lindberg ("Mercury Rising") are all decent, but their characters aren't developed nor explored enough to truly make them as good as they should be.
A small part by Laura Dern ("Jurassic Park") as their caring and enthusiastic teacher, however, is quite good despite a sad, but true turn of events that seems out of place simply due to its gravity and lack of proper screen time to address such an issue.
Although some may complain that the film's plot is too familiar (the small town kid trying to break free from the societal confines, and in particular, his father, that are smothering him), the fact that it's based on a true story -- any artistic license taken aside -- and the overall competent and uplifting dramatic elements in it make the picture a winner. We give this emotionally satisfying and entertaining film an 8 out of 10.