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October Sky

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joe Johnston
Produced by Larry J. Franco
Charles Gordon
Marc Sternberg
Written by Screenplay:
Lewis Colick
Homer Hickam
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal
Chris Cooper
Laura Dern
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography Fred Murphy
Editing by Robert Dalva
Distributed by Universal Studios
Release date(s) February 19, 1999
Running time 108 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $25 million
Gross revenue $34,675,800

October Sky is a 1999 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 to take up rocketry against his father's wishes, and eventually became a NASA scientist.



October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys, the title of the book on 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 "women over 30 would not go to 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 October Sky in order to capitalize on interest in the movie.


The film is set in Coalwood, West Virginia. 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 (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.

As the townspeople gather outside one October night, they see the Soviet satellite Sputnik 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. Initially, his family and later his classmates think he has gone crazy, especially when he teams up with Quentin (Chris Owen), the school's math geek who has an interest in rocket science. With the help of his friends, Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and 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, they run into trouble with local authorities when they are accused of having started a forest fire several miles away with a rocket that had gone astray. That, along with Homer's father's lack of support or appreciation crushes the Rocket Boys' dreams.

After Homer's father emerges from the school, Roy Lee is seen getting beat up by his stepfather. John intervenes and rescues Roy Lee, warning the drunken stepfather that, even though Roy Lee's father is dead, he will beat him up as he would have for attacking Roy Lee. In a rare display of emotion, he tells Roy Lee that his father was one of the best men John ever knew, and was lucky to know him.

Meanwhile, after a disaster in the mine, Ike Bykofsky is killed and John is injured. Homer must drop out of High School and work the mine while his dad recovers.

Later, Homer is inspired to look at a rocket science book Miss Riley had given him, and learns how to calculate rockets' trajectories. This shows him that their lost rocket could not have caused the fire, as it was unable to travel as far as the site of the fire. Homer and Quentin recover the rocket in a stream just about where it should have landed. The boys visit the police station, and find that the offending projectile was not theirs at all, but a flare that must have come from a nearby airfield.

The Rocket Boys enter their rockets into school science fair and win. The school sends Homer to the national science fair in Indianapolis. That night, Homer's father is shot at by a man in a dark black car outside. Homer and his brother express their concern about this to their father, but John passes it over, bitterly telling Homer to go "look for his suitcase" (Which is what he had been doing). Homer finally has had enough and confronts his father, arguing what is happening to the town is not his fault at all. He says that if he wins the science fair he will be able to go to college and pursue his dream of working at Cape Canaveral, and that the town and mine are dying, which everyone but John realizes. John, at this, tells Homer that if he wants to leave so badly, then leave. Homer complies, swearing that he will not return or even look back.

Homer goes to Indianapolis and enters the fair. His display goes over very well, but when he steps away for a moment, someone steals his display. Homer makes an urgent phone call home for help. His mother convinces Homer's father to end the ongoing strike so that Mr. Bolden could build a replica of the stolen display. Homer wins the top prize and is besieged with scholarship offers from colleges. He is also greeted, and congratulated, by his inspiration Wernher von Braun, but does not learn the scientist's identity until after von Braun is gone.

Homer returns to Coalwood a hero, and visits Miss Riley, who is now ill with Hodgkin's disease, in the hospital. He shows her the medal he has won, and she responds touchingly. A launch of the largest rocket yet is the last scene of the film. Homer's father 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. In the end, a space shuttle is shown being launched.

A series of vignettes tells the later lives of the real characters upon which the movie was based.


Actor Roles
Jake Gyllenhaal Homer Hickam
Chris Cooper John Hickam
Laura Dern Miss Frieda Riley
Chris Owen Quentin
William Lee Scott Roy Lee Cooke
Chad Lindberg Sherman O'Dell
Natalie Canerday Elsie Hickam
Randy Stripling Leon Bolden
Chris Ellis John Turner
Elya Baskin Ike Bykovsky
O. Winston Link Railroad engineer
Andy Stahl Jack Palmer

Differences between the movie and the book

  • In the book, Homer gets the autographed picture of Von Braun for Christmas. In the movie he gets the picture for his birthday along with a chocolate bar.
  • In the book Homer is 14. In the movie he is 17.
  • In the book Homer has thick glasses. In the movie he has none.
  • Some of the characters in the book do not appear in the movie. For example, William "Billy" Rose from the book does not appear in the film.
  • Jimmie O'Dell Caroll and Sherman Siers from the actual story are combined into one character: Sherman O'Dell.
  • In the book, Homer's father's name is Homer Hickam Sr. In the film, it is John Hickam. It is also not mentioned in the film that Homer's name is Homer Hickam Jr.
  • In the book, Homer's nickname is Sonny. He is not called this in the movie.
  • Daisy Mae, the cat does not appear in the movie.
  • In the movie Homer drops out of school to work in the mine. In reality Homer never dropped out of school.
  • In the book Jim has blond hair; in the movie, he has brownish hair.
  • In the movie Homer is offered a scholarship to several colleges after winning the science fair. In the book, he received no scholarship. His mother paid for his college.


The film was very well received by critics, with Roger Ebert giving it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars; and it has a 93% "Fresh" rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes based on 59 reviews[2]. It is the most acclaimed film directed by Joe Johnston yet.


External links



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