In 1999, Cooper appeared in two noteworthy films. One, 'American Beauty,' received eight Academy Award nominations, winning four, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Cooper played a repressed, repressive ex-marine colonel, a standout role that the Academy ignored. It's an earlier performance in a film released the same year, however, that shows Cooper at his best, due in part to a strong, nuanced script, a compelling story defined by the particulars of a time and place, and a character that proves that reacting is a key component in any actor's repertoire. That film, 'October Sky,' primarily a star vehicle for a then up-and-coming young actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, arrived in movie theaters in February, 1999, a time usually reserved for studio cast-offs and low-rent genre entries. The lack of studio faith, however, was unwarranted.
A small-scale family drama set in the late 1950s in the coalfields of West Virginia, 'October Sky,' focuses on Gyllenhaal's character, Homer Hickam. Homer, the son of a mining superintendent, John Hickam (Cooper), went on to a degree in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech, service in the U.S. military, and, eventually, NASA, where he served as an aerospace engineer. Hickam's book, "Rocket Boys" served as the basis for 'October Sky' ("October Sky" is an anagram of "Rocket Boys"). Homer's struggle, both universal and particular, centers on his desire to leave the West Virginia coal mines behind for the wider world, a desire that continually frustrates his father and threatens to irrevocably ruin the relationship between the pair.
The elder Hickam fully expects Homer to follow in his footsteps, but Homer's high-school teacher, Miss Frieda Riley (Laura Dern), encourages Homer and several other boys to develop their interests in science and engineering. With the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviet Union's opening salvo in the space race, Homer and his friends become obsessed with rockets, spending their free time working on model rockets, and participating in a science fair. The fair offers Homer and the other kids the prospect of receiving college scholarships -- and with those scholarships, a decidedly different future than their brothers. And fathers.
'October Sky' relies on the conflict between Homer and his father. John may seem to be the antagonist to Homer's protagonist, but he isn't a one-dimensional villain. John takes pride in his difficult, often risky work in the mines, seeing it as noble and worthy of respect. He also sees it as a family tradition. Homer doesn't. It's in that conflict and in Cooper's nuanced, hyperbole-free performance that a common experience, the children of working class, blue-collar parents finding their way in a white-collar world through higher education, increased social status and, presumably, economic stability, that makes 'October Sky' emotionally engaging.
Cooper gives John just the right amount mix of self-righteousness, willful blindness (to his son's dreams), and self-awareness (if not of his own, personal failings, then of his own, unspoken, unfulfilled dreams) that makes John a rounded, three-dimensional character. In the hands of a lesser actor, John could have turned into a scenery-chewing caricature, a villain unworthy of sympathy or understanding, but that's why filmmakers often rely on outstanding character actors like Chris Cooper.