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October Sky: Special Edition

Director Joe Johnston cut his teeth as a visual effects designer for the original Star Wars trilogy, then went on to direct well-made, wholesome fare such as TV's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the features Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and Hidalgo. His status as a Spielberg imitator who pretty much knows what he's doing made him the right man for 1999's October Sky, a Spielbergian boyhood memoir starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the Tom Hanks role. Set at the dawn of the "space race," this technically accomplished movie of upward mobility (in all its forms) plays like a TV movie made for everyone who subscribes to Reader's Digest. Still, its manipulations are sincere rather than cynical, and its reliance on obviousness supports a story that believes there's still power in the so-called American values of determination and pluck, and especially in the escape hatch of education. There's a lot to be said for a movie about teenagers aching to rock their world with their brains rather than their penises. As October Sky mixes American Dream idealism with adolescent yearning, it stands out from a Hollywood that rarely produces family films that are both "nice" and smart.

Adapted from the autobiography Rocket Boys by NASA scientist Homer Hickam Jr., October Sky chronicles Homer's high-school years in Coalwood, W. Va., a go-nowhere Appalachian town that sends its young men to school and then promptly down into the mine, where they may die suddenly from accidents or gradually from black lung disease. For young Homer (Gyllenhaal), his awful preordained life is short-circuited when the Soviet Union launches Sputnik in 1957. That world-altering event ignites the space race (which itself puts a chrome metal finish on the Cold War's pre-existing fears) and inspires Homer toward brave new possibilities. Homer and three cohorts (Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, and Chad Lindberg) begin building and launching homemade rockets, dreaming of a day when they can join the outside world and America's newborn exploration of space. Study and perseverance lead them from projectiles that sputter, explode, and careen dangerously (just like Cape Canaveral's) to beauties that soar way up in the middle of the air.

What dramatic conflict October Sky possesses doesn't come from Homer's experiments. There's never a question that the "rocket boys" will win the national science fair, their ticket out of Coalwood. Rather, it's between Hickam and his hard-nosed father, played by Chris Cooper in this strong cast's standout performance. Hickam Sr., the mine's foreman, tries to discourage his son from wasting time daydreaming about space when the boy should be eager to follow in Dad's proud footsteps through the coal dust deep underground. On Homer's other shoulder is the mentor who encourages him to follow his dreams, his dedicated science teacher (Laura Dern). She keeps her own tragic secret from interfering with Homer's future even as other forces — his father, the school principal, and the law — work to ground Homer's nonconformist aspirations forever. Think of it as Breaking Away meets The Right Stuff.

There's a lot of good-looking filmmaking on view here. Johnston displays a sharp eye for filling a frame and a keen sense for location shooting and period detail. On the other hand, October Sky offers no surprises. There's not a shot or emotional moment we've not seen in a dozen other films. You spot one death coming the instant it's telegraphed. Writer Lewis Colick (Ladder 49) shaped the real Hickam's nostalgic novelization of his experiences into an earnest but boilerplate screenplay. The characters possess some welcome dimension, though a "wind beneath my wings" speech near the end is just one of the groaners that ping the trite meter into the red zone. (If you enjoy the work of scenarist Mike Rich — Finding Forrester, Radio, The Rookie — you'll love October Sky.)

Then Johnston layers on his own wincingly self-conscious touches. For instance, when the boys hoist their "Cape Coalwood" flag, Johnston mimics the famous photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, a two-second indulgence that pops the film's assiduously honed reality. But viewers who find comfort in the familiar will find satisfaction in October Sky. When the Norman Rockwellisms work (the look of the coal miners, the mother's painting, the miasmic feel of a dying town willingly isolated in its own conservatism), October Sky manages to transcend its old-shoe trappings to evoke the gosh-wow of youthful dreams fulfilled. After all, it's not rocket science.

*          *          *

Universal's October Sky: Special Edition brings us a great-looking (and sounding) DVD. Its new supplements have fans of the film, and of the real Homer Hickam, in mind. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image looks gorgeous from a spotless print. The two well-produced audio options are DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Both are robust and fully "surround" active, and with this film it's easy to understand their enthusiastic use of the full home-theater environment as Homer's rockets whoosh 360° around your head. Mark Isham's noteworthy score is also well served.

The extras start with a full-length audio commentary by Homer Hickam himself. Now in his sixties and a novelist with his own web site, he offers a lively voice-over that fills in the personal history that necessarily had to be compressed in the film. He discusses his experiences working with Johnston on the film to achieve the crucial authenticity. We also get a 2004 featurette, Aiming High: The Story of the Rocket Boys (31 mins.), a casual documentary hosted by Hickam and shot in what's left of Coalwood (the town was sold off after the mine shut down). Homer chats with most of the other Rocket Boys for reminiscences and "where are they now?" info. The school principal depicted in the film gets to retract his original killjoy persona. The boys' inspirational teacher is lovingly eulogized, and the life-changing influence of a college education is lauded. The best footage comes from the vintage home-movies of young Homer and his friends firing off their rockets.

Rounding out the disc are a Spotlight on Location featurette, production notes, and the trailer. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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