July 6, 2010

Hoosiers (1986)
Grade: 62/100

Director: David Anspaugh
Stars: Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, Barbara Hershey

What it's about. Set in a small all-white Indiana town in 1954. Gene Hackman is hired as the basketball coach of the local high school. As a stranger with unorthodox methods, he is a target for the town's middle-aged men, who obsess over the team's won-loss record. He comes close to getting fired, but is saved because he wins over his biggest critic, pretty thirty-something assistant principal Barbara Hershey, and her unofficially adopted son, star player Maris Valainis.

In short order, Hackman goes from losing every game to winning every game. Along the way, he recruits eccentric alcoholic Dennis Hopper as his assistant coach, because he claims to know everything there is to know about high school basketball. Hopper predictably messes up, but the team keeps winning anyway, usually in final minute dramatics, until the team is advancing deep into the state tournament.

How others will see it. This is a movie aimed at men who love a good heartwarming sports story. At imdb.com, men give it 7.5 out of 10, women give it 6.9, and those under 18 give it 5.4. Thus, men buy it, women accept it, and teenagers suspect it. The film did well at the box office, received critical praise, and garnered two Oscar acting nominations, for Hackman and Hopper. The latter is none too subtle, although he is compared to his other big movie from 1986, Blue Velvet.

How I felt about it. Hoosiers is based on a true story. A small high school did win the Indiana state tournament in 1954. The rest of the story is all Hollywood. Among the discrepancies (lifted from here) the coach was in his mid-20s, not his mid-50s. He was married, and did not have an affair with a hot assistant principal who was young enough to be his daughter. The star player was not a silent head case, nor did he quit the team at any point.

It was the coach's second year, and not his first year, with the team. The previous coach had been fired, and was still alive. The team did not begin the season with a losing streak. In fact, they lost only two games that season. There was no dramatic town election to fire the coach. They did not win all their tournament games in the final moments. The Dennis Hopper character is complete fiction. The coach did not have a checkered past where he was banned from another state after punching a player. There was no team rule to pass the ball four times before taking a shot, because it is impractical even at the high school level. Among their strategies, however, was stalling. since there was no shot clock. In reality, 58 high school boys tried out for the team, not seven plus an equipment manager. There were ten players on the team. They never played with just four players on the court. And, no, the towel boy did not shoot game-winning free throws. And the coach wasn't thrown out of games.

Thus, the entire story is fiction aside from the small school winning. And if the small school didn't win, there would be no movie. Or, perhaps, the ending would have been changed too, sort of like Indiana State defeating Michigan State and Magic Johnson in 1979. But since Indiana State had Larry Bird, I prefer Drake coming within four points of beating UCLA and the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1969 NCAA tournament semi-finals.

Not only is the story fictional, but obviously so, in such a bogus manner as to sweep the audience into a small town frenzy. No coach would get himself ejected from a game to give his alcoholic assistant a chance to prove himself. No woman who looks like Barbara Hershey is going to let balding Senior discount Hackman seduce her. And all to an increasingly intrusive synthesizer score inspired by the theme to Chariots of Fire.

But it is nonetheless a good movie, and this has to do with competence of execution. It is well cast, well written, well acted, well directed, and well filmed. But I'll take Tokyo Olympiad (1965) instead. That is the greatest sports movie ever.

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