West Virginia, 1957. In the tiny mining community of Coalwood, high school student Homer Hickam Jr (Jake Gyllenhaal) is inspired by the Soviet Sputnik satellite, and dreams of building a rocket of his own. He is hampered by his father's (Chris Cooper) resistance, but with the help of his teacher, Frieda Riley (Laura Dern), he aims to fulfil his stellar vision.
Based on the memoir Rocket Boys
by Homer H. Hickam Jr., October Sky
emerged as one of the most delightful sleepers of 1999--a small miracle of good ol' fashioned movie-making in the cynical, often numbingly trendy Hollywood of the late 20th century. Hickam's true story begins in 1957 with Russia's historic launch of the Sputnik satellite, and while Homer (played with smart idealism by Jake Gyllenhaal
) sees Sputnik as his cue to pursue a fascination with rocketry, his father (Chris Cooper
) epitomises the admirable yet sternly stubborn working-man's ethic of the West Virginia coal miner, casting fear and disdain on Homer's pursuit of science while urging his "errant" son to carry on the family business--a spirit-killing profession that Homer has no intention of joining.
As directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer), this wonderful movie is occasionally guilty of overstating its case and sacrificing subtlety for predictable melodrama. But more often the film's tone is just right, and the spirit of adventure and invention is infectiously conveyed through Gyllenhaal and his well-cast fellow rocketeers, whose many failures gradually lead to triumph on their makeshift backwoods launching pad. Capturing time and place with impeccable detail and superbly developed characters (including Laura Dern as an inspiring schoolteacher), October Sky is a family film for the ages, encouraging the highest potential of the human spirit while giving viewers a clear view of a bygone era when "the final frontier" beckoned to the explorer in all of us. --Jeff Shannon