Hoosiers (1986)

2 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I never played high-school basketball. I was the oddball that played “b-ball” from 4th grade to 6th and then decided to focus on other things, like the school band and choir. But I never backed down from a little game in P.E. class and also, maybe going to a game wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do on a Friday night, but back then, what else was I going to do? And truth be told, I somehow found myself enjoying the game—it’s alive, intense, uplifting (when it can be), and entertaining, and you really find yourself rooting for the home players. That statement can be used to describe “Hoosiers,” which is my favorite film about basketball and is as much fun as attending a high-school basketball game.

“Hoosiers” is based on the true story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that, in the early 1950s, surprised everyone by not only progressing to the Indiana State Championship, but also winning. Despite that story to back it up, “Hoosiers” doesn’t use the “based on a true story” caption early on to manipulate us, and that’s probably a good thing, because much of the movie is focused on how the triumphant underdog concept can fully come through. This is a movie that is all about heart and you could see through the writing, direction, and acting that everyone put their all into this. The result is a wonderful movie.

Right at the opening credits, you can tell we’re in for something special, and nothing has necessarily happened yet. The first few shots are of a car going down rural streets of the Midwest in the autumn season, with fallen leaves swirling around by the wind. Assisted by a nice, soft music score by Jerry Goldsmith, you truly get a sense that you are there. And since we already feel at home in these shots, we feel throughout the rest of the movie that we’re in a good place to be.

Making that long trip is Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), who has come to the small town of Hickory, Indiana to coach the local high school basketball team, the Hickory Huskers. This would prove as a challenge for quite a few reasons. One is, he’s being asked to replace a coach that everyone in town knew and loved, and so he’s constantly being tested at just about each turn by a local—it doesn’t help that he bans parents and other supporters from practices either. Another is, there aren’t many players on the team—indeed, there are seven and their star player, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), is taking a year off from sports to focus on his academics. And also, this is Dale’s chance to redeem himself from a mistake he made coaching many years ago, and if he screws up now, his coaching career is over for good. This is a changed man, and he’s out to prove it. He uses disciplinary tactics to further boost the team’s confidence and athletic ability, and though they don’t start out very well, he is able to make them into a team that can play good basketball.

One of the things that further increase the townspeople’s displeasure is that Dale hires the father of one of the boys, who is Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town drunk, to come on as an assistant coach. While his worst moments show him as a drunken buffoon that sometimes embarrasses his son, his best moments show how much he knows about basketball, which is why Dale decides to take a chance and bring him on and give him a chance of redemption as well.

This decision, along with quite a few losses, lead to a petition signed for Dale’s resignation. Just as a clear verdict is about to be brought up, Jimmy steps up and says that he’ll finally play again…but only for Dale. (This is one of the best scenes in the movie—it’s the perfect “up-yours” to cynical people.) Soon enough, they all play better and start winning, and their successful run eventually leads to a spot in the State Finals, which is incredible for a small school.

With Dale redeeming himself, Shooter shaping up and getting himself a new, respectful image, and a small school about to show all of Indiana who they really are, “Hoosiers” is not only a film about basketball and the community that celebrates it—it’s mainly about redemption. And in that respect, this is a powerful film because the relationships that these people have in this town make it all the more worthwhile because of who they were and who they will become. By the time the movie is over, with the Big Game and the ultimate win, you feel like these people have truly done well for themselves and are happy for them, just as you’re excited at the success of this basketball team. The basketball scenes are riveting and well-shot, but they’re not the center of the film. It wasn’t supposed to be. But with this theme of redemption, it works even better as a sports underdog story.

And you do get a feel of the game itself—the coaching tactics, the basketball drills, the sense of the gym, the excitement of the crowd, the thrill of the game, etc.—which is why “Hoosiers” is regarded as, for good reason, “one of the best sports films ever made.”

The rock of the picture is the performance by Gene Hackman, who is excellent here as Coach Norman Dale, giving him full characterization and a three-dimensional portrayal. He has the competitive spirit down to a T, but he has a real human side to the character as well. He nails the quiet moments as well.

Dennis Hopper, as Shooter, was honored a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in this film, even though the actor himself believed he should have been nominated for “Blue Velvet,” released that same year. This must have come as a surprise for most people who believe that weaker individual characters are often ignored by the Academy, and while that wasn’t what he played in “Blue Velvet,” that’s definitely what he played in “Hoosiers.” Shooter is a loser, to be sure, and in need of gaining self-respect and respect from his son. But Hopper makes us care about him and want him to change that it is a sympathetic portrayal of such a man, and I think the Academy made a good choice in voting.

There’s another character in this movie—Myra Fleener, played by Barbara Hershey. She’s one of the few Hickory locals who have experienced big city life before moving back here because it’s where she has what she needs. She’s a bit cold toward Dale because she doesn’t trust him to stay away from Jimmy, as she sometimes looks out for him ever since his father died, so that he doesn’t push him into playing basketball again, before Jimmy decides for himself he wants to play again. But of course when she does see the true man Dale is, she realizes she can trust and possibly love him. This is admittedly one of the weaker aspects of the movie, as it does sort of make her into a regular love-interest for our protagonist, but I’ll let it slide because she does have a reason for starting out the way she does. And Hershey does a fine job in the role.

I’m also glad that actual young athletes were trained to be actors, instead of the other way around, because this way, you get natural performances from the young men who play the team players. They may not be the greatest actors, but the script allows them to stay within the limitations of their range.

I’ve tried, but I don’t think I can think of a better basketball movie than “Hoosiers.” You know how they say, “It’s not if you win or lose, but how you play the game?” That serves as an effective metaphor for this story of redemption on and off the court. This is a well-made, effective, wonderful movie that earns its title as “one of the best sports films ever made.”

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