It's 1957, and Homer Hickam has one dream: He wants to send a rocket into the heavens. All he has to do is master calculus, chemistry and physics, defy his high school principal and stand up to a father who thinks he's wasting his life.
This true story of a future NASA scientist is told in "October Sky," one of the surest pleasures of this still-young film year, a quiet, unforced ode to family, friendship and the power of the mind. It's a dignified, uplifting film that reinforces Chris Cooper's status as one of our finest actors.
Cooper plays Homer's father, John, a mine supervisor in Coalwood, W.Va. The elder Hickam has little time for scholars and dreamers; he's more impressed by older son Jim, who's just earned himself a football scholarship. Homer, he believes, is pretty much a failure; his best move would be to accept a job in the mines and make an honest living.
But after watching Sputnik race across the Appalachian sky one night, Homer is bitten hard by the space bug. He and a group of friends, soon dubbed the Rocket Boys, become convinced they can build their own rocket. Prodded by a teacher (Laura Dern) who wants her students to have far more than the coal mines could ever give them, the boys persevere, overcoming all sorts of physical and emotional obstacles.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Homer with enough boyish exuberance to make him believable, but not so much that he seems cloying. But the real pleasure here is watching Cooper, whose John Hickam is far more complex than most movie fathers.
While pushing his son toward what he believes is the proper path, he can't help but wonder if Homer is on to something dad just doesn't understand. The result is a portrait of a father-son dynamic that never fails to ring true.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper
Directed by Joe Johnston
Released by Universal
Rated PG (language, brief teen sensuality and alcohol use)
Running time 110 minutes
Sun score * * * *
Pub Date: 2/19/99