Hoosiers (United States, 1986)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Many will claim that Hoosiers is the best sports movie ever made. For me, it's in third place, trailing only The Natural and Rocky. Some will argue that Hoosiers deserves "extra credit" because it is based on a true story - how the small-town Milan Indians won the 1954 Indiana State Championship. In reality, there's little of Milan's tale to be found in Hoosiers outside of the "triumph of the underdog" angle. The film thankfully doesn't claim to be "based on a true story," but that shouldn't diminish the accomplishment of the writing/directing team of David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo. When they set out to make this movie, which was close to their hearts, neither expected to be crafting a minor classic.

During its 1986-87 theatrical run, Hoosiers was a modest success. It wasn't a blockbuster, but it more than made back its budget. (The total gross was about $29 million.) Like so many films from the mid-'80s onward, Hoosiers found its audience on home video. In that medium, many discovered the film, and its frequent spotlighting by sports-related TV shows elevated it to the level where many who hadn't seen it sought it out. The film is an unabashed "guy movie" (or, as one wag dubbed the genre, "dick flick"), with its focus on sports and male bonding. That's not to say women can't enjoy Hoosiers - the primary theme of redemption is universal - but most of the film's biggest boosters over the years have been men.

Hoosiers opens in the fall of 1951 with the arrival of big-time coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) in the small town of Hickory, Indiana. Norman has been hired to replace the long tenured, deceased coach of the local high school basketball team, the Hickory Huskers. For Norman, this is a second (and perhaps last) chance. Twelve years ago, his competitive career as a college coach ended when he punched one of his players. The NCAA suspended him for life, and he entered the military. Now, in Hickory, he has a chance to prove that not only is he a changed man, but he can still win.

His arrival is not greeted with acclaim. He rubs a lot of people the wrong way when he bans parents and other well-wishers from practice. His disciplinarian style causes two players to bolt from the team (although both rejoin). And he clashes immediately with fellow teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey), one of the few other residents of Hickory to have experienced big city life. Norman further infuriates some of the locals when he hires the town drunk, Shooter (Dennis Hopper), as an assistant. Shooter' low self-esteem is matched only by his knowledge of the game, and he's the father of one of the Huskers' players.

Things start out badly, with several losses, and Norman is hanging onto his job by a thread. A special town meeting is held to vote on removing him as coach. Just as his fate is to be announced, the school's star player, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), who has been taking the year off from sports to focus on his studies, announces that he will return to basketball - but only if Norman is the coach. That marks a turning point in the Huskers' season, as they begin winning. Their unstoppable run lands them in the State Finals - an unheard-of feat for a small school - with a chance to pull off the ultimate David-and-Goliath upset.

The first shots of Hoosiers let us know that we're in the hands of a director who understands the material. As the opening credits roll and Norman's car trundles down rural streets amidst the swirl of falling leaves, we can feel the location. Few movies provide such a pervasive sense of time and place: autumn in the Midwest, fifty years ago. We are transported, and never during the next two hours are we tempted to go elsewhere.

The film features basketball and the love of a community for the sport, but that's not what Hoosiers is about. It's about redemption. Norman must not only put his past behind him, but overcome the shadow of his actions and rebuild himself in Hickory. Even his lone supporter, the school principal, is not always sure he can do it. In one moment, when Norman elects to place the health of a player over winning a game, he proves himself. The season also represents an opportunity for Shooter to reclaim his self-respect and the respect of his son. And Norman gives second chances to two of his players who initially turn their backs on the team.

The ending is, of course, what ties everything in Hoosiers together. This isn't the sort of film where a bittersweet finale would have provided satisfaction. Sure, the emotional climax of the film comes when Norman tells his team that, even if they lose, he's proud of them, but this isn't Rocky, where true victory emerges from getting the girl and taking the champ to the edge. Working from the template of the Milan-Muncie championship game from 1954, the filmmakers were able to fashion a triumphant underdog story that does not defy credulity. (Many sports experts place the Milan victory alongside the 1980 Olympic hockey "miracle" as the two most improbable wins.)

Anspaugh and Pizzo were uniquely qualified to make the film, because they grew up in the Midwest and understood the mindset of the towns and the importance of basketball, where heroes in the gyms of Friday and Saturday nights could become gods during the rest of the week. After making Hoosiers, Anspaugh's directorial debut, the pair would re-team twice more on "true sports" stories: the feel-good weeper Rudy and the little seen 2005 drama, The Game of their Lives.

Many have said that they can't imagine anyone other than Gene Hackman playing Norman Dale. His performance is letter perfect, from the competitive heat he shows during games to the reflective sadness that emerges in quieter moments. The film doesn't have to give us a detailed backstory for Norman; Hackman's acting provides us with a full definition of his personality. What's interesting to note is that Hackman was a replacement for the original actor attached to the project: Jack Nicholson. When scheduling conflicts forced Nicholson to withdraw, Hackman filled the breach.

Portraying the lovable loser was a change of pace for Dennis Hopper, an actor who has spent the majority of his career playing villains (perhaps none more memorable than in Blue Velvet, the movie he made immediately before Hoosiers). Hopper has no difficulty eliciting sympathy for Shooter, and there are many viewers who identify the actor more with this character than with any of his bad guys. He nabbed a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his work here. The experience of making Hoosiers wasn't as positive for Barbara Hershey. Stuck in the thankless role as Hackman's love interest, she found many of her scenes left on the cutting room floor. (Watching the deleted scenes on the DVD gives a sense of how much better this already-good film could have been had Orion Pictures not demanded that Anspaugh deliver something with a running time under two hours.) Her role, and Myra's relationship with Norman, come across as superfluous in the final cut.

The actors playing the Huskers are all amateurs who were recruited more for their playing skills than their thespian abilities. They were given on-set training by Anspaugh and Hackman and, to their credit, they acquit themselves admirably. The filmmakers are saavy enough not to tax them by providing them with complicated storylines requiring displays of range. For many of these kids, this was their only on-camera exposure, although one or two went on to have minor acting careers.

While the most appropriate time to watch Hoosiers may seem to be during the Fall, the movie is so well made and so effective at drawing in the viewer that it can be seen at any time of the year without losing any of its impact. On the surface, the picture follows an established format, but where this film differs from many others is in the depth accorded to Norman's character. Rarely has a coach in any sports movie been this well developed. Basketball movies don't get any better.

Hoosiers (United States, 1986)

Director: David Anspaugh
Cast: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Chelcie Ross, Maris Valainis
Screenplay: Angelo Pizzo
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Orion Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1986-11-15
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1