West Virginia schoolkids see Sputnik overhead and opt for the space race rather than a life of coalmining.
It's 1957 and in the October sky among the stars, a Russian-made satellite makes Cold War Americans look up in suspicion and fear. Among them, Homer Hickman gazes instead in awe. Based on a true story written by Hickman himself, October Sky tells how he and three of his high-school mates were inspired to launch their own rockets and escape a life of mining in hillbilly Coalwood.
Directed by former Lucas/ILM effects stalwart Johnston, this is a more human tale than his CGI-fest Jumanji and comes across as a kind of Stand By Me-meets-The Rocketeer, the second of which he also helmed. Above all else it is the story of youthful rebellion, as Hickman (Gyllenhaal) and three others team up to study rocket science while classmates look either to win football scholarships or take a job at the pit. As well as tradition, the rebellion is focused against Hickman's mine superintendent father (Cooper) who reveres coal and mining with a passion matched only by King Of The Hill's Hank's love of propane.
The boys are encouraged by some, notably schoolteacher Dern, who buys them a book so advanced it enables them to win their coveted science fair scholarship, and Hickman's mother (Natalie Canerday). However, pa ridicules his son's every advance, witnessed by a steadily growing throng of townsfolk who come to their remote launchpad to see rockets fly ever more high and true.
The rockets beautifully symbolise the escape craved by the impressive Gyllenhaal (whose screen presence is like a rather more serious Emilio Estevez), and Cooper (as powerful and stone-jawed as his namesake Gary) epitomises intransigent tradition. But the clashes between father and son are at times a little heavy-handed, making the schmaltzy ending that much less credible.
The sense of period, the underground scenes and the rockets themselves are uniformly excellent, leading to a feelgood movie of some power.