October Sky (Special Edition)

I went through a NASA phase in my early childhood. For me it came right after my dinosaur phase, and prompted more than one or two visits to Houston. A couple of Lunar mission simulations later, I got over it, preferring instead to stick with fantastical, Vulcan populated space adventure. Most kids go through a rocket phase and most of them get over it. Those who don’t, spend most of their High School years with “kick me” signs on their backs and end up working on rockets. Homer Hickam never got over it. There isn’t much room for opportunity in Homer’s tiny, home town. Its residents have only one occupation, and that’s mining coal. No one escapes it. With High School graduation not so far down the road, Homer faces the seemingly inescapable prospect of life in the mines, and an early death from black lung. But that was the year the Soviets launched Sputnik, and an initially disinterested Homer finds himself captivated by the sight of that tiny satellite streaking across the night sky.

Homer soon becomes obsessed with rockets. Enlisting the help of some friends, he starts building his own miniature rockets and launching them into the sky. Soon, he’s the talk of his tiny town, gaining support from teachers and coal miners. For Homer, rocketry becomes his ticket out of a dismal future. But his father can’t understand it, and pressures him to accept a life mining coal. Determined to achieve something, Homer pushes on.

Based on the true life story of NASA engineer Homer Hickam, October Sky is a story of hope and perseverance against adversity. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder what the heck you’re doing sitting on your couch watching this kid build rockets, when you ought to be outside building your own. In one of his first big roles, Jake Gyllenhaal’s talent for playing delicate characters shines. Chris Cooper brings depth to what could have been a two-dimensional roadblock for Homer, and director Joe Johnston captures more than a moment or two of real cinematic brilliance. His shot of Homer descending into the mine shaft, while looking up into the starry night sky will stick with you, long after the movie is over.

Johnston seems to have a real feel for family filmmaking with depth, and he doesn’t simplify Hickam’s true story with easy answers. This is a movie of strong conviction and deep characters. A film with the ability to appeal to everyone without compromising its story. October Sky is a beautiful advertisement for education. A reminder that dreams can be a ticket to freedom. This DVD has been horribly misrepresented. This is not a Special Edition of October Sky, this is a Homer Hickam Edition. The Special Edition term is thrown around far too easily these days, and it really doesn’t apply here. This release is well put together, the visuals and sound for the flick have never been better, but it lacks enough involvement from well… anyone who actually had anything to do with making the movie to justify calling it a Special Edition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a nice release, it’s just one with a limited focus, that focus being the real guy upon whom the movie is based, Homer Hickam.

And for a guy with a horrible name to bear like Homer he seems pretty well adjusted. The October Sky: HH DVD lets us get comfortable with him through a pair of documentary style features included on the disc. The first is a look at The Rocket Boys, entitled "Aiming High". It takes time to interview all the real people behind the characters in the film, with a focus primarily on, the real life Homer Hickam. He and his old friends talk about what their experiences were really like and how the film, and Homer’s book has affected their lives and those of the people around them. It’s a really well done piece, and worth watching for anyone who’s even a little into the film. The second documentary is a tour of the real town of Coalwood, hosted by, yep, the real Homer Hickam. He takes us around to some of the places in the film, and discusses how the movie locations compare to the real deal.

The October Sky HH’s only other features are theatrical trailers and a commentary track featuring, you guessed it, Homer Hickam. He’s the only voice on it, and he does a nice job of talking about how the movie compares to the real deal, and how different life was back then. It’s an interesting perspective for a commentary, and a welcome change from the “hey remember when we shot this scene” garbage most commentaries are usually saddled with.

But, I’m still disappointed that they didn’t also include at least SOMETHING from someone who actually had a hand in making the movie. I mean, seriously, if this is a Special Edition, should the Director have a word or two on his generally well loved film? Or maybe Jake Gyllenhaal might have some thoughts on the movie that started his career? An interview? A commentary track? Something?? I’d even be happy with a poorly written text document from a key grip. The October Sky: HH has none of that, choosing instead to focus entirely on the person of Homer Hickam. I found that pretty interesting, enough that this disc is well worth recommending, but I just don’t feel comfortable calling this a REAL special edition.