There’s definite sleeper potential in “October Sky,” an immensely entertaining and unabashedly inspirational fact-based drama about a mining-town teenager who leads his buddies through experiments with homemade rockets during the late 1950s. In the real world, Homer H. Hickam Jr. grew up to be a NASA engineer and the author of “Rocket Boys,” the acclaimed memoir that inspired Lewis Colick’s screenplay. Onscreen, as in the book, Hickam’s story sometimes seems almost too good, or at least too neatly plotted and dramatically satisfying, to be true. Even so, thanks to the efforts of a strong cast and the fablelike simplicity of director Joe Johnston’s storytelling, “October Sky” is persuasive and compelling in equal measures. Critical reaction might be mixed, but strong word of mouth should propel the Universal release through an impressive theatrical orbit.
Pic begins with newscasts of the October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the satellite that seemed to signal Russia’s technological lead in the Cold War space race. Even in the relatively isolated West Virginia town of Coalwood, there is considerable fretting about the possibility of surveillance — or worse — by a Soviet space probe.
But for high-schooler Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), Sputnik is cause for inspiration, not trepidation. Although he is, at best, an indifferent student, Homer begins to read everything he can find about jet propulsion and rocket design. Indeed, he becomes so obsessed that he ignores the scorn of his buddies to befriend Quentin (Chris Owen), a bespectacled social outcast who just happens to be the school’s resident math geek.
Encouraged by a helpful teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), Homer enlists two of his buddies, Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O’Dell (Chad Lindberg), to help with construction of a small-scale rocket. Their first experiment is a disaster, but after Quentin joins their ranks, the self-taught “rocket boys” become increasingly more ambitious. Miss Riley suggests that they aim for a regional science fair, which might reward them with college scholarships.
But John Hickam (Chris Cooper), Homer’s taciturn father, isn’t at all pleased by the progress of his son’s foolishness. John is a mine supervisor who does his best to ignore telltale signs that Coalwood, like the coal mine itself, is dying. He proudly supports his older son, Jim (Scott Miles), who may be able to earn a football scholarship, but expects Homer to join him down in the mines after completing high school. Not surprisingly, Homer — whose most prized possession is an autographed photo of Wernher von Braun — has other ideas.
From the get-go, as Johnston tracks the nervous responses of Coalwood residents to news of Sputnik, “October Sky” vividly evokes the mood and ambiance of its ’50s period. More important, the helmer and his actors unaffectedly convey the attitudes of a time when rock ‘n’ roll was the only sort of rebelliousness that small-town authority figures accepted in teenagers. Pic makes it quite plain, without resorting to melodramatic overkill, that Homer’s grand dreams of transcending his humble beginnings quite naturally would seem utterly ridiculous to friends, neighbors and even the high school principal (Chris Ellis).
All of which helps to give pic an irresistible emotional pull. You don’t have to be a math scholar — or a rocket scientist — to appreciate Homer as being symbolic of any small-town teenager who has ever pursued a dream through hard work and strong will. It would be entirely accurate, but perhaps a bit off-putting, to describe “October Sky” as a uniquely American success story, or a brand-new variation on an old-fashioned Horatio Alger story. But the fact is, audiences will respond to the material because, when they are presented with as much skill and sincerity as they are here, even the most obvious cliches can resound with timeless truths.
Likewise, even the most cynical ticketbuyers may be moved by the father-son conflict at the story’s center. Gyllenhaal is enormously appealing and utterly convincing in a breakthrough performance. But Cooper — who has not been cast so effectively since John Sayles’ “Lone Star” — is every bit as affecting while playing a far less sympathetic and more conflicted character. John is by no means a tyrant, and he obviously loves both his sons. (He also seems to have a strong relationship with his wife, well played by Natalie Canerday.) But he has little patience for any impossible dreams, even if the dreamer is his son.
(Anyone familiar with Cooper’s early work may be amused by the irony of hearing anti-union tirades from the same actor who played a firebrand union leader of striking miners in Sayles’ “Matewan.”)
Lindberg, Scott and Owen give sharply detailed performances as Homer’s fellow rocket boys. An appropriately deglamorized Dern is well-cast and low-key as Miss Riley. Other supporting players — including special effects supervisor Joey DiGaetano in a fleeting bit as von Braun — are everything they should be.
Tech values are splendid across the board. Fred Murphy’s widescreen color lensing powerfully emphasizes the claustrophobic conditions in the underground tunnels where most residents of Coalwood make their living. After spending a little time there, you can easily sympathize with Homer’s desire to escape the darkness by reaching for the stars.