Director : David Anspaugh
Screenplay : Angelo Pizzo
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1986
Stars : Gene Hackman (Coach Norman Dale), Barbara Hershey (Myra Fleener), Dennis Hopper (Shooter), Sheb Wooley (Cletus), Fern Persons (Opal Fleener), Chelcie Ross (George), Brad Boyle (Whit Butcher), Steve Hollar (Rade Butcher), Brad Long (Buddy Walker), David Neidorf (Everett Flatch), Kent Poole (Merle Webb), Wade Schenck (Ollie McClellan), Scott Summers (Strap Purl), Maris Valainis (Jimmy Chitwood)
Since its release more than 25 years ago, Hoosiers has become one of the most beloved of sports films. From a pure genre standpoint, that shouldn’t be surprising since it encompasses everything we love about such films, particularly the romanticizing of an underdog through the filter of heartland American nostalgia.
Hoosiers is indeed a powerful film if you give yourself over to it, largely because it is so earnestly pure. There is something deeply admirable about its respect for passion and forgiveness, not necessarily in that order. Against all odds, it achieves a level of the mythical without being cloying or simplistic. Its based-on-a-true-story account of a small-town Indiana basketball team going to the state championship in the early 1950s is a blip on the map of genuinely important historical events. But, what makes it ring so genuine is the way in which the filmmakers use this story as a vehicle to convey with emotional acuity the larger-then-life themes of hope and redemption. It embodies Vince Lombardi’s famous proclamation that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog without the self-indulgent near-sightedness of his other famous saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
Hoosiers takes place in 1951, and it begins with the arrival of Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a man in his early 50s, in the tiny, unsophisticated town of Hickory, Indiana. As one character puts it, when a man of his age comes to a place like Hickory, he’s either running from something or he has no place else to go. Norman has been hired to be the new head basketball coach at Hickory High School, which has a total enrollment of less than 200 students. He is an old friend of the principal, Cletus (Sheb Wooley), who has clearly brought Norman in as a favor. Norman’s past is murky at this point, as we learn that he once coached college basketball, but hasn’t coached for a dozen years and has been in the Navy for the past decade.
In a town like Hickory, outside of farming, basketball is the binding glue that holds the town together, and Norman immediately threatens the town’s well-worn sense of how it’s always been done by doing things his own way. The local men who gather at the barber shop to discuss one-on-one versus zone defense don’t take to the way Norman ignores their advice, and they are completely oblivious to the brilliance of his military-like plan, which involves breaking down the young players and then building them back up into something stronger and better. All they see is an outsider upsetting the balance.
But, Norman knows what he’s doing, and soon the team is not only winning, but beating bigger and stronger teams on their way to the playoffs and eventually the state championship. One of the reasons Hoosiers works so well is the way it shows how the team’s successes resonate and affect different groups of people, thus making these successes infinitely more meaningful than just victories on a basketball court. For the team members, the team’s success is a source of pride that transcends their limited worldview in a tiny town like Hickory, where they haven’t seen a building taller than two stories. For the town, it is a means by which they can come together as a community, which is illustrated beautifully in the way the warm, amber tones of the basketball games contrast with the cool, hard grays of the Indiana winter outside. And, for Norman Dale, the team’s success is a form of redemption, a means by which he can reclaim past glory without the mistakes of his earlier years. He is a man running from something, but he’s also a man running to something: a better sense of himself.
The theme of redemption is also played out in the character of Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town drunk who regularly embarrasses his son, who is a member of the basketball team. In Shooter, Norman recognizes some of himself—not just an innate love of basketball (Shooter turns out to be more knowledgeable about the game than anyone), but a sense of past tragedies haunting present life. Shooter’s drunkenness is an escape, just as Norman’s disappearance into the Navy years ago was an escape, and in bringing Shooter on as an assistant coach and forcing him to sober up, Norman gives him the second chance no one else would. In this sense, Hoosiers is a beautifully optimistic film that suggests good deeds are passed on from person to person (Cletus gives Norman a second chance, thus Norman gives Shooter a second chance, and so on) without explicitly rubbing our noses in it.
First-time director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo are both Indiana natives, so they understand the culture of the world they’re portraying. Pizzo’s script leaves room for the details of everyday life without choking the narrative, and Anspaugh’s direction is solid and effective without ever being showy. In films of this sort, it’s easy to trivialize small-town culture, but Anspaugh and Pizzo avoid the clichés and instead focus on the texture of lived experience in a tiny farming community like Hickory. There is a real sense of life throughout Hoosiers, both on the court and off, which imbues it with a realism that helps balance its more romantic notions.
Much of the film’s success can also be attributed to its performances, particularly Gene Hackman, who embodies all of Norman’s sometimes contradictory tendencies—his tenderness and his violence, his intelligence and his anger, his patience and his frustration—and makes them seem organically connected. Norman is not always a pleasant man, but he is always real. For this reason, it is a shame that a subplot involving his relationship with another teacher, Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey), seems so forced and unnatural. Much of their story was left on the cutting room floor for reasons of time, and it shows in the awkward transitions from immediate animosity, to guarded friendship, to eventual romance.
Ultimately, though, Hoosiers is about what takes place on the basketball court, and it is there that the film soars. All the young men who play the members of the team were nonactors hired primarily for their ability to play basketball, which helps enormously in giving the game sequences an air of authenticity. Anspaugh builds the tension of the games to wonderful heights, and never overplays his hand. There’s not much surprise in the story’s development, and when the team gets to the big game against a much larger team in front of a crowd larger than Hickory’s entire population, there’s no shock in how it turns out. Yet, it is done with such attention to detail and genuine love of the characters and their dreams that it’s impossible not to be moved. Throwing a ball through an iron hoop never seemed like such an overwhelming cosmic gesture.
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French|
|Distributor||MGM Home Video|
|Release Date||June 5, 2012|
|Replacing the single-layer 2007 Blu-Ray (which some viewers found a bit lacking), this new Hoosiers disc looks fantastic in its 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. The image, which is properly framed at 1.85:1 (rather than being slightly cropped to fit the 1.78:1 frame), boasts good detail, fine color saturation, and a lack of nicks and scratches while maintaining a solid filmlike look via a visible, but not distracting presence of grain. The black levels are good and show off the film’s contrast very well. The amber hues of the basketball games are warm, and the exterior shots, which often juxtapose lush green with gray skies and brown fields, look excellent. It features the same lossless DTS-HD Maser Audio 5.1-channel surround mix, which is generally good, although some of the surround effects sound a bit forced and overwhelming at times. Jerry Goldsmith’s memorably rousing musical score sounds good throughout, although the expansiveness of the mix highlights the dated synthesizer that forms its backbone.|
|All of the supplements from the two-disc Collector’s Edition DVD released back in 2005 are included here, unlike the bare-bones 2007 Blu-Ray. Director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo contribute an engaging screen-specific audio commentary. They are old friends who went to Indiana University together and have had a professional working relationship for two decades, thus their commentary has an easy, friendly feel to it. The half-hour retrospective featurette “Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend” focuses equally on the real-life story of the 1954 state champion Milan High School Indians on whom the story is based and the film’s production. The featurette rounds up most of the principles involved in the film, including Anspaugh (who says the idea for the film was hatched around a bong at IU!), Pizzo, producer Carter De Haven, stars Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, and Maris Valainis (who played Jimmy), and cinematographer Fred Murphy, as well as basketball luminaries like Indiana Pacers forward Reggie Miller. The best, though, is the fact that they brought in some of the original members of the 1954 Milan team, including Bob Plump, who hit the game-winning basket. This disc also includes half an hour of deleted scenes, each of which is prefaced with a video introduction by Anspaugh and Pizzo explaining why it was cut. Not surprisingly, many of these scenes involve the relationship between Norman and Myra, although honestly they’re still not that good and wouldn’t have made the relationship feel more natural had they been included. Some of the other deleted scenes are quite nice, and one wishes they could have been included. The video quality of the deleted scenes is fairly poor, as they were transferred in nonanamorphic widescreen, look quite dark, and clearly need some restoration (they are filled with dirt and small scratches). One of the coolest additions is a complete film record of the 1954 state high school championship game between Milan and Muncie Central. Transferred from a 40-minute 16mm newsreel from the Indiana University archives, this is the complete game, with only the down time between gameplay edited out. Although the print is in poor condition, it was fascinating getting to see the entirety of this legendary game. Lastly, the disc contains a photo gallery of production photographs and behind-the-scenes shots.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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