Twice in my life, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue my dreams. The first time was when I got the chance to work in the movie industry. The second was when I entered law school. Although my odds of realizing both dreams were better than those faced by Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) in October Sky, I too faced obstacles and dealt with people telling me I could not succeed. October Sky is a true inspirational story about a boy who aspires to do something different with his life rather than settle into the miner’s life he’s expected to lead. This is a wonderful story that, especially in these hard economic times when people struggle to find employment, is particularly poignant.

October Sky tells the story of Homer Hickam, a high school boy who lives in a mining town in West Virginia who one day becomes inspired to build rockets after watching the Soviet Sputnik satellite race across the starry sky. Unfortunately for Homer, life in the mining town leaves no room for other aspirations, especially ones that involve building rockets and shooting them off into space. Homer’s father (Chris Cooper) is some sort of foreman with the mining company. He’s a tough dad who thinks his son’s obsession with rockets is misguided and foolish. To him, there is nothing more noble and practical than working the coal mines. Supporting Homer is his high school science teacher (Laura Dern), who encourages him to pursue his dreams no matter what. Through her and a lot of perseverance, Homer sets out to become a rocket man.

This was the first film I saw with Jake Gyllenhaal and its amazing to see the huge contrast between the hillbilly boy in October Sky and the muscular hero in the upcoming Prince of Persia. Gyllenhaal has come a long way in his career over the past 11 years and I think one reason for this is his strong acting skills. Here, he plays an affable kid and despite the fact that the actor was born and raised in L.A., the combination of his looks and performance totally convinces you that he’s a miner’s son from West Virginia. What makes October Sky work so well is that you immediately become attached to Homer Hickam and identify with all his struggles. You want him to succeed and get out of the town.

You can’t seriously discuss October Sky without mentioning Chris Cooper and his amazing performance. Its safe to say that Cooper has never delivered a bad performance in his career. Lone Star, American Beauty, Adaptation, Seabiscuit, need I go on? Cooper is such a natural here as the tough miner dad. I can’t imagine anyone else filling this role and Cooper plays him as if he really knew the man. There is one particularly powerful scene that absolutely defines his character. The scene takes place outside a jailhouse where Homer’s father has come to bail him out. On the way to the car, Homer and his dad see one of Homer’s friends, who was also taken to jail with Homer, getting beaten up by his stepfather. Homer’s dad approaches the stepfather and stops him, threatening to hurt him if he ever lays another finger on his stepson. It’s a great scene and it establishes the complexity of the father’s character. On the one hand, he is hard-headed and does not believe Homer’s dreams are worth pursuing. On the other hand, he is a fair and compassionate man who values integrity, loyalty, and a strong work ethic. The filmmakers could have easily painted him to be a mean old asshole that the audience dislikes. Instead, you see a character who is likable at times and infuriating in others.

Some of you may notice that this movie was directed by Joe Johnston, a filmmaker who has made some great films and a lot of bad ones (NOTE: Johnston is set to direct Captain America). I think I know why he was hired to direct Captain America. Of the few films that, I think, work well, all of them are set during the 40s-50s era (Hidalgo, The Rocketeer, October Sky). Although two of these were not box office successes, Johnston seems good at capturing the Americana aspects of the time period. October Sky is infused with warm colors, a 50’s music soundtrack, and a gee-golly-whiz wholesomeness that’s perfect for Captain America. Sure, October Sky certainly has its saccharine moments, but this is, after all, an inspirational story that is told in a very conventional Hollywood style. The symbolism does at times hit you over the head with its lack of subtlety, but that didn’t bother me because the tone of the film is set early on so you know what to expect from the beginning.

I urge anyone who has ever dreamed of going after something and has eventually given up doing so to see October Sky. Its hard not to like it, especially if you dig these inspirational tales. Its also unlike many stories of this type because it doesn’t revolve around sports for once. This movie shows that its just as bad-ass to be a science geek as it is to be a football star.