Film Review: Hoosiers
Growing up as a complete basketball nut, Hoosiers was one of my favorite movies as a kid, to the point where I thought that all good coaches prowled the sidelines with a rolled up piece of paper and made their players pass four times before a shot. I probably watched this movie a good twenty times as a youngster, but I haven’t seen it in six or seven years. As a result, I wanted to see how the film held up to my older and more cynical mind.
Set in the 1950’s, the movie takes place in Hickory, a tiny town in Indiana that “isn’t on most state maps.” Gene Hackman plays Norman Dale, an outsider brought in to coach the town’s basketball team. The townsfolk, predictably, are not happy that an outsider is being brought in to coach their team. Other issues arise: Jimmy Chitwood (the greatest basketball player in movie history) is not playing on the team, Dale brings in Shooter (Dennis Hopper in an Academy Award winning performance), the town drunk as an assistant coach. There’s also a superfluous love story between Dale and principal Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey). Other than that, the film plays out like a classic underdog story about a small team coming together and beating the odds, eventually culminating in the state tournament.
I want to first list the things that don’t work as well. The most problematic part of the movie is the overuse of montages. Montages are pretty much a necessity in sports movies, particularly the dreaded “training montage.” And I think Hoosiers handles that part of it well. The in-game montages don’t work nearly as well, mainly because in every post-Jimmy joining the team montage, Hickory seemingly makes every single shot. Aside from the montage-fatigue I experienced, the film also suffers from “Friday Night Lights” (the tv show not the movie) where every game seems to come down to last second shots or unexpected heroics from unheralded bench players.
Minor complaints aside, this is one of the best sports movies ever made. The film is buoyed by a dynamite performance from Gene Hackman as Norman Dale. Dale’s checkered past is rarely mentioned, permeates the character and seems to drive him. Hackman gives Dale a solid combination of gruffness and heart. He’s a hard man, for sure, but he really cares for his players. If you’re not moved by his pre-state championship game “I love you guys” line, than your heart is made of stone. Dennis Hopper is similarly dynamic as Shooter, a town drunk with an all-encompassing knowledge of basketball. Hopper is simultaneously hilarious and and heartbreaking, as he struggles to win back the respect of his son (a player on the team) and the rest of the townfolks.
Other than Friday Night Lights, I don’t think any movie captures the spirit of high school sports quite as well as Hoosiers. There’s something pure about high school athletics that is just not present in the pros or even in college basketball. The idea of a small school rising against all the odds, with the entire town behind them, is unique to high school sports. The fact that it’s set in Indiana, a famously basketball crazed state, even furthers the importance and impact of the games.
More than anything, the film is about comebacks and never giving up (as clichéd as that sounds). Norman Dale is looking for a second chance at coaching after things went awry for him in New York. Shooter is looking for a second chance to win back some self-respect. And the team itself is looking to “win one for all the small schools that never had the chance to get here.”
Hoosiers at times moves into melodrama and overruses some of the classic basketball clichés, but it’s still one of the best sports movies ever made. If you’re a fan of basketball, Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, or are just looking to see an uplifting, well-made film (and you somehow haven’t seen Hoosiers) this is a must-see.