Scores of movies aspire to the label "inspirational." Unfortunately, most pile on the artificial sweetener instead of letting the characters and situations speak for themselves. Recent saccharine hits like "Patch Adams" and "Stepmom" try to instill sappy sentiment through phony and grossly manipulative means.
The opposite is true of "October Sky," the story of a boy who dreams of escaping his West Virginia coal-company town. It is based on "Rocket Boys" - the silly title change is the movie's only real flaw - the memoirs of rocket scientist Homer H. Hickam.
Like the first "Rocky," another classic Horatio Alger-type story, "October Sky" features well-written characters from a definite time and place, with dreams and goals we care about.
Before Sputnik passes over the town of Coalwood, W.Va., in 1957, Homer Hickam, as played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a bright but indifferent student. But this Soviet propaganda coup not only backfires by rousing the United States to the space race, it personally inspires Homer to reach for the stars.
This is not terribly thrilling for his father, John (Chris Cooper), who runs the local mine - and, therefore, the town. Like everyone else in town, he thinks the town's boys have two destinies - to get a football scholarship, or to work in the mines. Only Jim (Scott Miles), John's older son, is good at football.
Inspired by a teacher, Miss Reilly (Laura Dern), Homer and his two best friends (William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg) try to turn their fascination with rocketry into a college scholarship quest. But it's not until Homer recruits the school's math genius/social outcast (Chris Owen) that their plan gains momentum.
After some comic - and nearly tragic - early failures, the boys get guidance, not only from Miss Reilly but from a Russian immigrant welder and a black machinist who once flew fighter planes with the Tuskegee squadron. The "rocket boys" go from being the town joke to the main attraction, as nearly everyone eventually pulls for them. Everyone but John Hickam.
Lewis Colick's screenplay may seem pat at times - and the story may seem too good to be true - but it is an accurate adaption of Hickam's excellent book. Director Joe Johnston, known for special-effects extravaganzas like "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" and "Jumanji," brings to "October Sky" a fluid grace and intelligence that make it seem like a John Sayles movie for the whole family.
Gyllenhaal brings just the right note to the wistful, but basically normal, all-American boy with a dream. He and Cooper have great chemistry in moments both stressful and tender, and their believable relationship makes the movie soar.
Cooper gets his best role since Sayles' "Lone Star" as the taciturn, proud and sometimes short-tempered patriarch, turning what in lesser hands might have been one of those monster adults from "Dead Poets Society" who live to crush young hopes, into a sympathetic, admirable, man.
Johnson and Colick also effectively convey the passing of an era, from a way of life that is dying out while management and the union squabble over its scraps, and giving way to a new era of technology and information. When Homer sees Sputnik pass over through the wires of the mine-shaft elevator cage, the symbolism is inescapable.
"October Sky" has two terrific storylines, each of which could have been enough for a passable movie. There is the fun surface plot about the boys' quest, but what makes this a great film is the way it examines the sometimes stormy relationships between fathers and sons - even in a loving situation, and with the best of intentions.
"October Sky" poignantly illustrates that fathers and sons do a large share of their fighting not over conflicting goals or opinions, but over the ways in which they are the same.