Scene Gems: Gyllenhaal Gives Up Dream for Hard Labor in 'October Sky'
October Sky (1999) is Joe Johnston's best film (The Rocketeer comes in second), a sweet, nostalgic true story about Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his dream of going into space. In the 1950's this was a pretty radical idea, but when the Russians put Sputnik in orbit, it became a national mandate.
This film perfectly captures that era in the small mining town of Coalwood. Just about everyone born there ends up in the mine, with the exception of a small few who escape via sports scholarships. Homer's chance comes in the form of winning the state science fair through his newfound passion of rocketry. Of course his coal miner father (Chris Cooper) scoffs at all of this, but even his ridicule doesn't deter Homer's course. It's a very inspiring piece.
In this sequence, Homer's dad has just been injured in a mining accident, and the mantle of responsibility falls on Homer. It's his worst nightmare, but we admire his desire to the right thing, sparing his older brother giving up his way out. His school teacher (Laura Dern) is disgusted by his choice, but his principal (Chris Ellis) issues his limp support with "you have nothing to be ashamed of."
Finally, Homer enters the mine, and we see Johnston nailing the point home. As Homer looks up through the jail bars on top of the elevator, we see the night sky. Upon closer inspection, Homer sees Sputnik fly by quickly, and then disappears. The lift descends and Homer goes with it, into his own personal hell.
This scene is shot perfectly, and Gyllenhaal's face is the perfect mirror for our anguish for him. Mark Isham's score is suitably melancholy, and hits all the right notes with a violin that really pulls at our strings. This sequence is indicative of the entire film--moving, poignant, and effective.