Wednesday, February 24, 1999

October Sky

Posted By on Wed, Feb 24, 1999 at 12:00 AM

There will always be a market for coming-of-age, feel-good movies, especially when they tell " a true story." With strong characters consumed by universal (thus recognizable) dilemmas and a set to match (bleak houses populating bleak landscapes under bleak skies), the film’s mandatory happy ending – the "emergency exit" we know so well – creates a false sense of comfort which, for some time now, has replaced aesthetic value. Hence, movie-watching rule No. 1: a happy (ending) film is a good film.

And, sure, there’s nothing wrong with it – feel free to feel good at the talkies, get your money’s worth, watch those great kids with tall dreams overcome every obstacle, cry and laugh, and live the adventure to the fullest! Nobody tells you not to. It’s just that, after more than a hundred years of "cinema prologue" – as Peter Greenaway of the insane Drowning by Numbers once put it – we’re kinda ready for something new. Not new stories – we know better than that – but new ways of telling them, new means of celebrating the possibilities of this still wondersome medium.

Sure, this complaint could have accompanied any recent production which uses film merely to illustrate text, but it happened to occur to me during the end credits of October Sky, for it is this film which claims to speak of sundry risks – of innovation, of individuality, of failure – while taking none.

Coalwood, West Virginia, 1957, "a time in our history when people had hope," producer Charles Gordon (Field of Dreams) observes. "When a Soviet satellite flew over, people got together to watch it. There was camaraderie."

And camaraderie it is, as Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his friends, encouraged by a bold – and dying – teacher (Laura Dern), decide to build and launch off their own rocket. Homer’s decision seems foolish to his father, John Hickam (Chris Cooper of Lone Star in a formidable performance), whose world begins and ends with the coal mine. But Homer beats the odds, as we knew he would, while director Joe Johnston (Jumanji) rinses any cinematic risks out of this admirable adventure and works his way, patiently, to yet another unamazing happy ending.

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