Review by Norm Kelsey
Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
Director: David Anspaugh
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: Audio Commentary, Documentary, Deleted Scene, Archival Footage, Trailers
Length: 114 Minutes
Release Date: March 1, 2005
Basketball is a religion, a way of life.
Based loosely on real events, Hoosiers follows a season in the life of fictitious coach Norman Dale. Banished from his previous job in college hoops, he's hired to coach at rural Hickory High School, enrollment 64. The school and town are as reluctant to embrace this outsider as Dale is to being warm and fuzzy. The locals are dogmatic when it comes to basketball, insisting that the Hickory Huskers continue to play zone defense because...well, they always have. Norman has his own plans (he prefers ball control play over run-and-gun basketball) much to their chagrin.
As Norman Dale, Gene Hackman is superb as the quasi-Bobby Knight, the volatile new coach with skeletons in the locker room. He's brooding as his own worst enemy and motivating as the team's task master. He manages to shade the character with enough regret and longing for acceptance that you still root for him through his most boorish moments.
Cletus (Sheb Wooley), the school's principal, is skeptical about giving his old friend his only opportunity to coach again. More doubtful is teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey), the custodian of the town's basketball savior Jimmy Chitwood. After the previous coach's passing, the orphaned Jimmy refuses to play again and Myra is happy to keep him off the court. The sole character with faith in Dale is the town drunk, "Shooter" Flatch (Dennis Hopper). Shooter is a walking basketball encyclopedia who wallows in alcohol and the memory of a missed shot. His estranged son is one of the Huskers' starters. Myra, Cletus and Shooter know why coach Dale's championship-filled career came to a violent halt. And only Myra weighs the opportunity to use the knowledge against Norman as her dislike of him grows.
(Much like legendary coach Bobby Knight finally being run out of Indiana on a rail for repeatedly abusing his student athletes, Dale has demolished a lifetime's work in a single blow. Coach Knight's most notorious episode occurred around the time of Hoosiers' release. He infamously blew up during a game against state rival Purdue and flung a plastic chair across the court nearly inciting a riot. But, Knight is also a highly regarded coach, the last to run the table and lead his team to a perfect record.)
The Huskers' season progresses under Dale's strict hand. Stakes are raised when Norman hires Shooter to be assistant coach under condition that Shooter comes to games sober. When Dale is ejected leaving Flatch in charge, the pressure leads to dire consequences for Shooter when he is unable to control his drinking.
For Dennis Hopper, Hoosiers was a major comeback. After overcoming alcohol and drug addiction, Hopper didn't need to dig far to conjure up the character of Shooter. But this is no caricature of a drunk. Hopper turns Shooter into a sympathetic human being. It's a heartbreaking performance. This is the soul most in need of second chance in Hickory. It's impossible not to choke up during the scenes where Shooter is left run the team or when he stumbles onto the court midgame in a drunken stupor. The emotional and physical investment won Hopper an Oscar nomination and revitalized a valuable actor's career.
Over time, the team becomes a cohesive unit, learning to respect Coach Dale. But after ejections and on-court brawls, the townspeople are furious and want Dale's head. Norman won't defend himself beyond declaring his pride for his players. Finally, Jimmy Chitwood emerges in Norman's defense, proclaiming he'll play if the coach is allowed to remain. Everyone, including Myra, is forced to relent.
With Jimmy's prolific play, Coach Dale steers his teams to the finals. The championship takes them to the metropolis of Indianapolis to face an urban powerhouse in a classic David versus Goliath match-up. The size of the field house overwhelms the kids. Norman has the team measure the court's dimensions. Lo and behold, the floor is the same size as home. It's the most cinematic example of the coach's ability to motivate and teach his players. He has made believers of the team, the townspeople and Myra, with whom he has developed a romantic relationship. While Dale basks in the limelight and press, his team's selfless play humbles him. His last words before the team takes the court are "I love you guys."
Yes, the Final ends as it did in real life, on a last second shot. Of course, the outcome of the game is moot. Hoosiers is about the value of teamwork and making good on second chances: redemption for Coach Dale, rehabilitation for Shooter and the revival of a small town's spirit.
As a basketball fan, I can tell you action is true and well choreographed. The most ingenious casting for Hoosiers was the team itself. They are actually kids from Indiana. Amateur athletes were cast for their playing ability first, acting chops second, they exude a 1950's innocence while avoiding the ironic self-awareness of most teen actors. You can't help but feel good about this bunch.
The costumes and art direction put you in the musty gym and the pep rally. Filmed entirely on location in Indiana, this movie is packed with Autumnal backdrops and Midwestern faces. Director David Anspaugh has made a well crafted piece. Hoosiers is sentimental without being sappy or preachy. It's a winning film filled with valuable lessons and timeless storytelling.
Hoosiers only stumbles in its efforts to weave a love story into the plot. Many of Barbara Hershey's best moments are in the extras. The relationship is given little time to develop, which is discussed by the filmmakers in intros to the deleted scenes.
You can count on one hand the most outstanding modern sports films: The Natural, Breaking Away, Bad News Bears, & Hoop Dreams. But none of them has the heart of Hoosiers. No wonder coaches use this stirring film as a teaching tool. Competition and hardship are part of sports, they are part of everyday life. This wonderful film reminds us how to conduct ourselves with dignity despite the odds.
Overall, the film
looks crisp. The satiny uniforms of the teams come across in vivid colors. The
scenes in the various gyms are vibrant. However in some of the early outdoor
scenes there are artifacts and light noise. This however doesn't detract from
the the film.
The audio is sharp. You can hear the bounce of the ball and the squeak of sneakers on hardwood in 5.1. The Oscar nominated score of Jerry Goldsmith with highlight reel fanfares and post game reveries springs from the speakers without overwhelming.
Sports Fanatics ****
For everyone else ***
This is the major improvement over the initial DVD release of Hoosiers. There is insightful audio commentary from writer Angelo Pizzo and director Anspaugh on disc one and a second full disc of extras.
"Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend" focuses on the film and the actual game that inspired it, with contemporary interviews with the cast & crew, NBA luminaries (although no Larry Bird), and members of the 1953-4 Milan High School basketball team. It's fun to hear Hackman and Hopper talk about their roles and the kids who were cast as the ball players.
Casting trivia: Jack Nicholson was originally tabbed to play Norman Dale.
The extensive deleted scenes particularly flesh out the relationship between Myra and Norman. And one resolves how a player mysteriously returned to the team after being thrown off by Dale. The quality of the deleted scenes is middling, but hey, they are on the disc.
The ultimate extra on this two-disc set is the 1954 Indiana State Championship offered in its entirety. I suspect only confirmed sports-aholics like myself will watch the whole Milan/Muncie title game, but it is fun viewing. The rules are the same, but the style of play is so genteel. No shot clock. All lay ups, set shots and jumpers. No dunks, alley-oops or no-look passes. No Pacers running into the stands to pummel the patrons. Just pure basketball.
The DVD package is textured to feel like a basketball.
Simply the best basketball movie ever. For hoops fans, it's required viewing. For everyone else, it's a moving tale of a team of underdogs. Even if you aren't from Indiana, you'll cheer for Hoosiers.