American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Like the hero of "October Sky,'' I remember the shock that ran through America when the Russians launched Sputnik on Oct. 5, 1957. Like the residents of Coalwood, W.Va. in the movie, I joined the neighbors out on the lawn, peering into the sky with binoculars at a speck of moving light that was fairly easy to see. Unlike Homer Hickam, the hero of "October Sky,'' I didn't go on to become a NASA scientist, or train astronauts. But I did read Willy Ley's Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel three or four times, and Arthur Clarke's The Making of a Moon. I got their autographs, too, just as Homer sends away for a signed photo of Werner von Braun.
That first shabby piece of orbiting hardware now seems like a toy compared to the space station, the shuttle, and the missions to the moon and beyond. But it had an impact that's hard to describe to anyone who takes satellite TV for granted. For the first time in history, man had built something that went up, but did not come down--not for a long time, anyway. Sputnik was a tiny but audacious defiance of the universe.
"October Sky'' tells the story of four boys in a poverty-stricken corner of Appalachia who are determined to build their own rocket, and help get America back in the "space race.'' It's seen through the eyes of their leader, young Homer Hickham (Jake Gyllenhaal), who sees the speck of light in the sky and starts reading the science fiction of Jules Verne. Homer is a good student, but math and science are his weak points. He knows he needs help, and breaks all of the rules in the school lunch room by approaching the class brain, an outcast named Quentin (Chris Owen).
They talk about rocket fuel, nozzles, velocity. Two other boys get involved: Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O'Dell (Chad Lindberg). Their first rocket blows a hole in the picket fence in front of Homer's house. The second one narrowly misses some miners at the coal mine, and Homer's dad John (Chris Cooper), the mine supervisor, forbids further experimentation and confiscates all of the "rocket stuff'' from the basement. But the kids labor on, in an isolated patch of woods, building a shelter to protect themselves from exploding rockets. They talk a machinist at the mine into building them a rocket casing of stronger steel, and they use alcohol from a moonshiner as an ingredient in the rocket fuel.