October Sky

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This article is about the 1999 American biographical film directed by Joe Johnston. For the Canadian rock band based in Montreal, Quebec, see October Sky (band).
October Sky
October sky poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joe Johnston
Produced by Charles Gordon
Larry J. Franco
Screenplay by Lewis Colick
Based on Rocket Boys 
by Homer Hickam
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal
Chris Cooper
Laura Dern
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography Fred Murphy
Edited by Robert Dalva
Universal Studios
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date(s)
  • February 19, 1999 (1999-02-19) (United States)
Running time 109 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $25,000,000
Box office $34,675,800

October Sky is a 1999 American biographical film directed by Joe Johnston, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern. It is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner's son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to take up rocketry against his father's wishes, and who eventually became a NASA engineer. Most of the film was shot in rural East Tennessee, including Oliver Springs, Harriman, and Kingston in Morgan and Roane counties.


October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys, the title of the 1998 book upon which the movie is based. It is also used in a period radio broadcast describing Sputnik as it crossed the "October sky." Homer Hickam stated that "Universal Studios marketing people got involved and they just had to change the title because, according to their research, women over thirty would never see a movie titled Rocket Boys"[1] so Universal Pictures changed the title to be more inviting to a wider audience. The book was later re-released with the name in order to capitalize on interest in the movie.


The film is set in Coalwood, West Virginia in October 1957. The coal mine is the town's largest employer and almost every man living in the town works in the mines. John Hickam (Chris Cooper), the mine superintendent, loves his job and hopes that his boys, Jim (Scott Miles) and Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), will one day join him in his mine. When it appears that Jim will receive a football scholarship to attend college, this leaves Homer to fulfill his father's dream, although his mother, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), hopes for more for her son.

In October, news of the Soviet Union's rocket launch of Sputnik 1 reaches Coalwood. As the townspeople gather outside the night of the broadcast, they see the satellite orbit across the sky. Filled with awe and a belief that this may be his chance out of Coalwood, Homer sets out to build rockets of his own and enter the science fair, writing about his progress to Dr. Wernher von Braun, one of the head engineers at NASA. Initially, his family and later his classmates think he has gone crazy and is wasting his time, especially when he teams up with Quentin Wilson (Chris Owen), the school's math geek who also has an interest in rocket engineering. With the help of his friends, Roy Lee Cooke (William Lee Scott) and Sherman O'Dell (Chad Lindberg), and support from their science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), the four try out their new passion. While their first launches are failures, they begin experimenting with new fuels and rocket designs. After several successful launches, the local paper runs a story about them.

The next day, they are arrested — accused of having started a forest fire with a rocket that had gone astray. After John picks up Homer from the police station, Roy Lee is seen getting beat up by his stepfather, Vernon. John intervenes and rescues Roy Lee, warning the drunken man that, even though Roy Lee's father is dead, he will fight for Roy Lee as Roy Lee's father would have. In a rare display of emotion, he tells Roy Lee that Roy's father was one of the best men who ever worked for him.

The arrests, along with John's lack of support, crushes the boys' dream and they abandon rocketry.

After a mine disaster, John is injured while rescuing "... a dozen men [who] would have died...", though one of the victims who was killed is Ike Bykovsky (Elya Baskin), a machine shop worker who originally let Homer use the shop to build his rockets, and then transferred to the mine for better pay. This fills Homer with contempt for the mine, but despite this, he drops out of high school and works the mine to provide for the family while his dad recovers.

Later, Homer is inspired to look at a rocket science book Miss Riley gave him, and learns how to calculate the trajectory of a rocket. This reveals that an unrecovered rocket launched by the boys could not have caused the fire, as it was unable to travel that far. Homer and Quentin calculate the precise distance of the missing rocket and find it in a stream. The boys present their findings to Miss Riley and the school principal, Mr. Turner (Chris Ellis). Chagrined at the police, Turner identifies the offending projectile as a flare from a nearby airfield.

Homer returns to school, the boys return to rocket making, and soon win a school science fair. The school decides to send Homer to the national science fair in Indianapolis, Indiana. That night, John is almost shot by a man in a drive-by shooting in his kitchen. John, with Homer and Jim in tow, exits the house to see who fired. John shouts "Vernon!" realizing this was apparently revenge for the threats John gave Roy Lee's stepfather earlier. Homer and Jim express their concern about this to their father, but John passes it over, bitterly telling Homer to go "look for his suitcase" (Homer had been doing so prior to the shooting). Fed up, Homer confronts his father and a heated argument ensues. Homer storms out of the house, vowing to never return or look back.

At the national science fair, Homer's display is received very well. Overnight, someone steals his de Laval nozzle, as well as his autographed picture of Wernher von Braun. Homer makes an urgent phone call home for help. Elsie implores John to end the ongoing strike so that Mr. Bolden (Randy Stripling), the machine worker that replaced Bykovsky, can use the mine's machine shop to build a replacement nozzle. John initially refuses, but relents when Elsie, fed up with his lack of support for their son, threatens that she will leave him. With the support of the town, Homer wins the top prize and is besieged with scholarship offers from colleges. He is also congratulated by his inspiration Dr. von Braun, but in the confusion does not realize the engineer's identity until after he is gone.

Homer returns to Coalwood as a hero, and visits Miss Riley, who is now dying of Hodgkin's disease. He shows her the medal he has won, and she says she'll be proud to tell her future students that she taught the Rocket Boys. A launch of their largest rocket yet (called the Miss Riley) is the last scene of the film. (In the reality of which this scene is emblematic, the rocket boys' most successful rocket reached an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m) — higher than the summit of Mount Everest.) John finally shows up for a launch, and is given the honor of pushing the firing button. As the rocket streams upward, the film shows the view from the perspectives of many characters. As the group looks up to the rocket, John slowly puts his hand on Homer's shoulder and smiles.

A series of vignettes (including footage of a Space Shuttle launch and home movie footage of the characters in the 1950s) reveal the outcome of the main characters' lives


Critical reception[edit]

The film received critical acclaim from film critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 90% out of 72 critics gave the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.6/10 and the site's consensus stating: "Rich in sweet sincerity, intelligence, and good old-fashioned inspirational drama, October Sky is a coming-of-age story with a heart to match its Hollywood craftsmanship."[2]


External links[edit]