Wednesday 2 March 2022

Movie Review: Hoosiers (1986)

A sports drama, Hoosiers (also known as Best Shot) is a traditional underdog story with plenty of heart and no shortage of platitudes.

It's 1951, and middle-aged Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) arrives in the backwater of Hickory, Indiana, to coach the local high school basketball team. Due to a chequered history, this is Dale's final chance at redemption. He immediately clashes with fellow teacher Myra (Barbara Hershey), and his more serious coaching methods disillusion a vocal and passionate group of parents.

The school's star basketball player Jimmy Chitwood has decided not to play this year for personal reasons, and without him the team struggles with a string of bad results. Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper) is the perpetually drunk father of one of the players but also an astute student of the game, and Dale recruits him as an assistant coach. Unsatisfied with progress, the parents try to force Dale out as pressure mounts for the new coach to deliver better results.

Loosely inspired by the 1954 exploits of Indiana's Milan High School, Hoosiers encourages old fashioned stand-up-and-cheer exuberance. The hokiness is earned, though, as the Angelo Pizzo script puts coach Dale through the wringer on multiple fronts before the bounces start to go his way. Director David Anspaugh deploys rural charm in good doses, finds poignant locker room moments, and excels at staging coherent on-court action for the many in-game snippets.

Just as the team's journey to overcome adversity and achieve success is positively celebratory, the film's many weaknesses are also plain to see. Apart from Dale, Myra, and Shooter, the other characters are poorly defined, perhaps due to budget constraints limiting the available supporting acting talent. Star player Jimmy gets four short lines of dialogue and is denied the opportunity to explain his rationale for first leaving then rejoining the team. The turnaround in the team's fortunes coincides with Jimmy's return, but Anspaugh skips over explaining whether the coach's methods or one overpowered player triggered the winning streak.  A few other side characters, including Myra's mother, are introduced with promise then simply discarded. 

The 18 years of age difference between Hackman and Hershey is obvious and grating, and what could have been a stellar friendship between coach Dale and teacher Myra is sacrificed for an awful romantic moment. 

But Hoosiers also offers plenty of honest passion, and it's impossible not to admire and cheer the trajectory of the plucky small town team forging a winning spirit, battling larger and better funded schools, and riding momentum all the way to the state tournament. Hackman does his part injecting sideline spikiness, navigating around his initial disdain of small town attitudes, seeking allies where he can find them, and arguing every call until he inevitably gets tossed. His reclamation project to uncover the man hiding beneath Shooter's drunkenness is a satisfying supplementary plot.

The corn is plentiful and sometimes uncultivated, but Hoosiers sinks the basket when it matters most.

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  1. It's mildly fascinating to me that this is a movie that gets us to root for the white kids against the inner city Black kids, but it's hard not to. It does this in the right way, though--we want this kids to win because we like them and not because we dislike the other kids.

    Dennis Hopper is awfully good in this. He was when he was given good material to work with.

    My brother co-authored a book about the guy who actually took the last shot in the game this was based on. He is, not surprisingly, a folk hero in Indiana.

    1. I just wish we got to know the kids better. There were bit players in their own movie. It's a feel-good movie, but the papered-over cracks are visible.


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