Four high-school students overcome the odds to build a series of working rockets and win first prize at the National Science Fair. Based on a true story. [ October Sky credits: Dir: Joe Johnston/ Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern/ 108 min/ Drama/ Creator as Hero]
The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 set off the space race. It also captured the imagination of Homer Hickam Jr., a teenager in a rural West Virginia. Based on NASA scientist Hickam’s autobiography, Rocket Boys, this film tells his remarkable story.
The launch of Sputnik provoked a variety of public sentiments, from admiration to fear. Hickam’s reaction was emulation. Together with the class nerd and two other friends, he began researching how rockets worked. Through long trial and error, these ambitious, young high-school students ultimately succeeded in making workable rockets, a triumph that won them first prize at the National Science Fair and subsequent entrance into college.
This story has a sense of life that should appeal to libertarians. Hickam has an uncynical can-do spirit that enables him to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. Granted, what he and his friends accomplish doesn’t change the whole world, but it certainly changes theirs. Their attitude is the stuff of which entrepreneurs are made. Another plus for the film is that is has an individualist angle, as these young men must also break from the pack—defying both their parents and their peers—to succeed.
Thanks to such an inspiring story, October Sky is superior entertainment, moving and upbeat. It’s rounded out with some universal teenage experience—conflicts with parents, first attempts at romance, etc.—but not so much as to veer significantly from the main events. This is an all-around satisfying film, and it’s an important one because it tells the truth. Working hard at the right thing really does pay off. Education really can turn a coal miner’s son into a scientist. And yes, the American dream is still there for those not afraid to dream.