October Sky (1999) | Universal Studios
Universal Studios

The Unlucky Ones

October Sky (1999)

The thing about October Sky is that in junior high I watched it five times. Once in geometry, twice in industrial tech, once in chemistry, and once on my 10.1-inch Dell Inspiron the spring I was home-schooled during my dad’s sabbatical even though it wasn’t really for school, but more because I very quietly loved Homer H. Hickam Jr. and the Rocket Boys.

I have nothing in common with October Sky. And for that matter, I have nothing in common with Homer Hickam, the film’s protagonist. Homer grows up in a decaying West Virginian town in the late 1950s, one filled with miners and mine explosions and bleak shots of darkened flat lands, layered with gruff but often forgiving fathers, soft-spoken mothers, and brothers who need the football scholarship. There’s a high school where no one is going anywhere anytime soon, because there isn’t money to leave and the jobs are here in West Virginia.

The coal jobs aren’t too great though, and much of October Sky depicts an exhausting miners’ strike. John Hickam (played by leading father, Chris Cooper) expects his two sons to accept their fate. “You better take an interest in your damn own town” he says over breakfast at the beginning of the film. Yet his son, Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal, pre-Donnie Darko), starts to question his future. This escalates the night the town gathers to watch the Russian satellite, Sputnik 1, soaring across the sky from their front lawns. His family and his neighbors immediately move on, grumbling about the Soviet Union, but Homer hangs on, staring high into the big black space until he is completely alone. There’s a shot of the sky, sputnik dancing along, small and bright. Cut back to Homer, focused. The audience can see the want on his face, a youthful hunger, an unseen reflection from above. And then I think, maybe that’s it, maybe I do have something in common with Homer H. Hickam Jr.

The thing about me is that I grew up in a small Iowan college town in the 2000s with academic parents and an incredible record for doing exactly as I was told. Very far from West Virginia coal country, very far from the mines. My hometown wasn’t a bad place to grow up, and now that I look back, I think it might have even been a pretty nice place to grow up. But back then, all I wanted was to get out. My friends and I would dread high school, grind our teeth during assemblies and morning announcements, we’d race home and dream of leaving, flipping off the front doors of the school while we sped away toward some kind of better future. We had aims—from our books, our movies, our parents—so we aimed high. We demanded we be given something in return; the kind of demand only a high schooler could make, assuming we were the only ones trying to leave. I ended up at the state school along with a lot of my classmates, my safety school, though I liked to tell people it was because of the writing program. I didn’t get out, but I thought, wait four more years and you will. You’ll prove it.

October Sky (1999) | Universal Studios

October Sky is the kind of all-American film that Hollywood producers bend over backwards for. A good “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” flick that has us all crying by the time a character says the word dream. We love a story of resilience, we love the emotional investment, and we love it when everything works out. In one scene, Homer’s science teacher, Miss Riley, and his high school principal argue. The principal believes Miss Reilly is giving her students the wrong idea. “A lucky one will get out on a football scholarship,” he says, referring to the school’s issue with children wanting to leave. “How about I believe in the unlucky ones?” she responds. The moment Homer decides to build a rocket, we cheer from our seats. We know this story, and we love it.

My mother often tells me that from something bad comes something better. Rejection is hard, repeated rejection even harder, but you know what’s good? The something better that’s just around the corner. Recently, I called her about something and she repeated this again. I told her I am tired of hearing it. Nothing better is coming, I want to cry at her. Well not right away, she scoffs. Of course. This takes time. I’ve failed a lot, I tell her again. She sighs. It’s all I’ve been saying for years now.

Homer fails a lot too, but in a fun way. During a montage, Homer and the rest of his team (the Rocket Boys, as they coin themselves) launch numerous rockets, they read books on rocket power, they get help from around the town. They blow up a fence and send a rocket spiraling around. A couple girls at the school are into the rockets and the boys. Everyone starts to hear about the Rocket Boys. They become local celebrities. Everyone seems fine with it, but John Hickam is mad. “I thought you put all this nonsense behind you, Homer,” he says. It’s still pretty fun though. Partly because, as the audience, we know he’ll probably succeed in the end. This won’t last forever. It’s based on a true story anyway, there wouldn’t be a movie if it didn’t turn out okay.

I like to tell people that Chicago is my starter city. Not where I want to be, but a good start. Where I want to be is far away from where I am, which seems to be a running theme. Where I need to be is where people will be impressed about where I am. Then again, I’m starting to get to know myself and I don’t know if that’s true anymore. It might be that bullshit we hear about happiness coming from the inside or something. I still want to leave though. Some days I stand waiting for a train and crave it so much it makes my heart ache. It scares me to think that once I move, I’ll want to leave again. I imagine success like this, as the most fleeting thing in the world. It’s there and it’s great, but then we’re on to searching for the next high. Otherwise, it kind of just feels like another failure.

At a pivotal point in October Sky, there is an especially draining sequence of events: The mine collapses, which happens frequently in this town, we are led to believe. A miner is killed. John survives, barely, so he is taken home, broken and sick. He coughs with what would be considered the black lung, but nobody talks about it, which also happens frequently in this town. He can’t go back, everyone says. It’s time for his sons to take over, so Homer goes to the high school and drops out. This is normal here. The principal reassures him coal mining is a fine job, a proud career aspiration. Miss Riley is mad.

But it really doesn’t matter. Homer goes to the mines. We are watching him give up on his dream, watching him fail, and we know this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. We’re scared for him. It’s pitch black out when he wakes up early and puts on his miners cap. He walks to the deep gaping hole that leads to his new job. He gets in the elevator with the rest, and everyone else there is older and equally depressed. The score, angelically composed by Mark Isham, plays a long piercing note as Homer descends into the mineshaft. He looks up and sees Sputnik 1 soaring across the sky, barely noticeable as he falls deeper into the hole, already folded within the dark below. The spinning void above is further from Homer than ever before, out of reach for a final time.

The main thing is that I don’t know how my story is supposed to go. There’s no script, so I am scared. It’s funny to think that the older I get, the further I think I am from success. It’s not funny like I’m laughing, but more like how I understand it’s absurd. Because I know so many people find their way in their 30s and 40s and even 50s, and I also know this fear is so common and every conversation with a 20-something is about the pressure we put on ourselves and the lack of proof that we’ve succeeded in anything at all. We are all striving for a dream that we can’t even legitimize because we don’t even know what it is. It’s me striving to leave every place I am or my friend doing so many comedy shows she can’t breathe. Is this the proof we want? I want something so badly, but I am always looking up at it from a descending elevator, doubting I will ever be close to whatever is flying in the sky. I’m in the big gaping coal mine wondering if I’m allowed to be proud of myself yet.

Homer Hickam is proud of himself before John Hickam is proud of him. He wins the science fair and school recruiters follow him out the door like a celebrity, waving their business cards in his face. But before that, Homer stands and presents in front of his rocket display. He holds a cylinder up high so the crowd that has formed can see. He is smiling, excited, a bit overwhelmed. Homer gestures to the pictures on his display. Here we are, he says, the Rocket Boys.

October Sky (1999) | Universal Studios

When he gets home, the Rocket Boys decide to launch one more rocket. The town attends, except for Miss Riley, who is fatally ill but can witness the flight from her hospital window, who smiles at the long cloud of rocket exhaust spiraling in the distance, who breathes the words I believe in the unlucky ones. And John, who is at the mines, of course. I’m very busy, he tells Homer when he’s invited to the event. Very busy. Homer nods because he gets it finally, where his pride comes from in the end.

John does arrive though, just before the launch. He squints at his son, whom he barely recognizes and also intensely loves. “It won’t fly unless someone pushes the button.” Homer hands the controller to his father. “It’s yours if you want it.” They move out into launch area and the town counts down. As John pushes the button, his hand drops on Homer’s shoulder. Father and son watch the last rocket soar into space, so far that it feels impossible.

Sometimes I think I have to stop believing in movies like October Sky. In stories of resilience. In depending on a story far more than you depend on yourself. In college, I watched John put his hand on Homer’s shoulder and became truly inconsolable. The boy I was watching the movie with looked so confused. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “It’s a good ending! They all go to college! You literally wanted to watch this!”

“I don’t know,” I practically sobbed into my hands. “He just showed them all, I guess. He did it. He made it. Imagine that.”

I imagine my own parents standing by while I launch my metaphorical rocket. I think of my hometown saying wow that girl? I think of the Homer barreling down into the mines turning into the Homer working for NASA years later, and I want my own story to reflect that. I want to tell people I used to call my mom every time I failed and I now I own PBS (or something). America loves a good success story. We love an underdog. It’s Daniel LaRusso finally proving himself to the bullies in The Karate Kid. It’s Babe bounding through the obstacle course like a sheepdog. It’s Billy Elliot auditioning for the Royal Ballet School. We love Homer because he just makes so much sense. It’s such an easy narrative to go along with—but when we want our own narrative to fit that arc we run into a wall, primarily because we don’t get a montage of mishaps or a perfectly climactic science competition.

I like to think I have something in common with Homer H. Hickam Jr. I think a lot of us do, that we all have a Soviet Sputnik 1 we watch soar across our hometown sky. It changes over the years, grows, morphs, shrinks, and adapts. But it’s always there, glinting away, giving us the drive to prove ourselves.