"October Sky" seems to have its heart in the right place. Inspiration is the word for this slick tale of populist uplift, the heartening, true story of four small-town boys who gain national attention for their exploration of rocket science. Adapted from Homer Hickam's autobiographical book "Rocket Boys," it's a somewhat entertaining mix of "Stand By Me," "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People."
Director Joe Johnston ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "The Rocketeer," "Jumanji") cleverly eases his way into "October Sky," framing the film with vignettes of life in rural Coalwood, W.Va., circa 1957. His period-piece approach is refreshing, although he ought to be faulted for allowing some of the era's most familiar hits -- by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, etc. -- to intrude so obviously into Mark Isham's thoughtful score.
It's the day after the Soviets' launch of Sputnik marked the dawn of the space age, and everyone is attuned to the news. Entranced, Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes a breakfast-table announcement of his plans to build a rocket. The declaration elicits laughs from his dad, a proud, stubborn mine superintendent played by Chris Cooper. "Well, just don't blow yourself up," says his only slightly more supportive mom, Elsie (Natalie Canerday). Homer promptly blows up his invention in the front yard.
Encouraged by a kind teacher (Laura Dern), he rounds up a team of junior scientists led by the nerdy Quentin (Chris Owen) and including pals Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O'Dell (Chad Lindberg). The four, patronizingly dubbed "the rocket boys" at school, secure materials and expert assistance wherever they can, and set up a launch pad on an abandoned dump outside of town. Homer eventually makes his way to a national competition in Indianapolis, where he meets other budding inventors and runs into German-born rocket pioneer Wernher Von Braun (Joey DiGaetano).
"October Sky" is littered with multiple subplots, few of which lead anywhere exciting. A close friend faces a terminal illness. A family member deals with a health crisis. Mine employees strike. And, just like the midsection of a romance, Homer temporarily gives up his passion for a tryst with coal shoveling. But we all know that true love reigns, and Homer will remain happily blinded by science.