How Historical Film Creates Ideas about People and the Time Period

In this post, I’ll be exploring ideas for an analysis of a particular aspect of media: popular film. Herein are my ideas and the beginnings of my research and analysis of how historically based film can have a major impact on how audiences view and think about the people and the time period the film reflects.

I’ve chosen the 1999 film October Sky to explore the concept of how historical film can influence, challenge, and change audiences’ ideas about the time period the film takes place in, as well as the people who lived in it. The film is based on true events and the memoir Rocket Boys (later renamed with the same title as the film) by Homer Hickam, Jr.


This is one of my favorite movies of all time and I’ve been watching it since I was a young child. Over the years, new ideas, themes, and issues stand out, and I’m excited to take this opportunity to dive into the historical meanings, messages, and takeaways this wonderful film presents.

Begin at the Beginning: Asking the Right Questions

Every successful analysis begins with a question, or several, relating to the answers one wants to find through this investigation. Because I am focusing on the impact of historical film on modern audiences, I am concerned with the following inquiries:

  1. What messages does October Sky perpetuate about the Space Race and 1950s American Culture? A crucial aspect of films based on historical events is the messages they portray and preserve about the time period. In answering this question, I hope to explore the historical context of the film; the dominant cultural ideology of the time (surrounding the Cold War and, of course, the United States’ push for space exploration); and the ideas concerning social and political priorities during the late 1950s, including the dissension between support for the space program and domestic hardships/conflicts and the advancement of labor unions.
  2. How does October Sky create an idea of the Rocket Boys’ experience that is different from what actually took place? One of the most challenging endeavors of creating a film based on actual events is retaining truth while simultaneously making the film theatrical and entertaining. In answering this question, I hope to discover how translating historical events into film distorts or otherwise changes the nature of the story. What audiences see and what actually took place are seldom the same thing, so I wish to explore why, but more importantly how theatrical adaptions influence audience reception of what happened in the real world.

Digging Up the Facts: Exploration of Another Time

To get an accurate understanding of how this film influences modern audiences, I will need to conduct research about the time period. A literature review is in order, one that covers the specific window of the Cold War that is presented in the film, the political and social climate of the 1950s, and the attitudes (ideologies) of the American people during the Space Race and the historical conflicts with the USSR.

Through this research, I will gain a much wider understanding of the time period in which Homer Hickam lived, grew up, and began his life’s work. This knowledge will be extremely valuable as I move forward with my analysis, as it will provide a foundation from which to build my ideas. By exploring the culture of the time, which was very different from my own, I will be able to comprehend the motives, influences, and challenges that created the circumstances in which Homer Hickam endeavored to break away from his small town’s legacy.

Off and Running: Theoretical Frameworks

An important part of this analysis will be the frame I choose to use. In other words, my analysis will take place in the context of a couple theories concerned with interpreting media and the socialization that happens through consumption of media. The theories I have chosen are as follows:

  1. Cultural Studies Theory – I plan to utilize several aspects of cultural studies to investigate and explain the impact of October Sky in the context of its cultural appeal. Specifically, I will be looking at the historical context of the film and how it influences audience reception; ideologies of the time period, both dominant and critical, and how they are presented in the film; and the hegemonic patterns of the Cold War era and what they mean in the context of the Rocket Boys’ experience in 1957 and 1958.
  2. Cycle of Socialization Theory – This theory will be especially useful as I look specifically at Homer Hickam and his experience as a teenager in 1957 and 1958 as it is portrayed in the film. This theory posits that we continually change out behavior based on the socialization we undergo in the home, at school, in the community, through relationships with family, friends, and neighbors, and as we age. There is ample evidence in the film that Homer is resistant to many of his culture’s norms and using this theory will help me to understand how his experience of rebellion is portrayed in the film.

In addition to exploring the concepts above, I will briefly look at the portrayals of race, class, gender, and sexuality in October Sky. I will focus on class, as it plays a significant role in Homer’s experiences and the advancement of his goals and aspirations.

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Left: Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer Hickam in October Sky; Right: Homer Hickam Jr., 1959

Diving In: Methods of Analysis

For this analysis, I will be using a specific method to inquire about the themes I’ve outlined above. Through an in-depth content analysis of October Sky, specifically focusing on the character investigation of Homer Hickam, I will explore the messages, themes, and meanings conveyed through the translation of his experience into the film.

This textual analysis will provide a deeper understanding of how this film based on true events perpetuates ideas about the Cold War era, the Space Race, and the reigning political, social, and economic ideologies of the time period. It will also give a clear picture of how film adaptation serves to distort, change, or gloss over real events in an attempt to make an entertaining, profitable film.

In this process, I hope to discover what is lost, what is gained, and what is retained when real events are translated into entertainment media. In addition, I hope to gain a better grasp on what exactly a film like this is trying to accomplish.

Finishing Up: Takeaways and Legacies

Because this film is based on true events, and because it resonates deeply with me, I am confident that my research and analysis will provide me with a deep understanding of how this historical film influences audience attitudes (and my own) about life in the late 1950s.

Through the process of my exploration and inquiry, I will be able to synthesize my findings into a coherent conclusion and takeaway message. Although I do not yet know what that message will be, the beginning of my exploration has already shed light on the legacy of October Sky. Time and effort will reveal what truly lies at the very heart of this inspiring film, and by extension, the heart of this incredible story of growth, perseverance, and accomplishment.

What October Sky means for me, and others like me who have been touched by this amazing history, will usher in a new way of viewing historical film; and, hopefully, a critical understanding of the progression of society, who makes it happen, and how it influences every one of us in our daily lives.


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