I've seen you guys can shoot, but there's more to the game than shooting.
Hoosiers is directed by David Anspaugh and stars Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, and Dennis Hopper. The film is very loosely based on the Milan High School basketball team that won the 1954 state championship.
'Sweet' is a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports movies. Nothing in sports pulls the heart strings more than the jubilation of seeing an underdog team overcome the odds and win it all. Part of what makes sports so enthralling is the sheer unpredictability of them; all of the expert opinions and analysis in the world can never EVER guarantee what will actually happen. Sadly, this unpredictability is not a luxury that is present to us in a sports movie, as the final result is whatever the screenwriter(s) want the final result to be. And because no one likes to watch a hated team win the championship, our central, "heroic" sports team will usually triumph, unless there is some "greater lesson" to be learned by not winning the title.
The journey of an underdog overcoming the odds to win it all in a sports movie is one that's filled with cliches: the montage of the team winning games left and right, the coach with a checkered past, the motivational speech about how everyone's going to be a winner at the end of the day. There is no doubting the fact that Hoosiers contains all of these cliches, but what's fascinating is how undeniably sweet the movie still is, never turning into joyless sports mediocrity. Hoosiers lets its sweetness come naturally; the movie relies on the natural talents of Gene Hackman, while keeping its historical inspiration at a minimum, using the story of the 1954 Milan High School state championship to drive the movie's story in the right direction, not serve as the be all end all.
Taking place in 1951, the story follows high school teacher and basketball coach Normal Dale (Hackman). He arrives in a rural town in Hickory, Indiana, and meets with his long-time friend and the town's high school principle Cletus Summers (Sheb Wooley), who hired Dale to be the high school's new basketball coach. The school is incredibly small, with only seven players available on the basketball team. Nonetheless, the townspeople are passionate about basketball, although everyone is upset that the town's best basketball player Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis) would rather focus purely on his grades. Dale struggles to become acquainted with the team, forcing them to play a slower style that ends up proving ineffective. Dale also loses his temper and gets himself ejected in several games. On top of all that, Dale also finds himself having to deal with the town drunk, Wilbur Flatch (Dennis Hopper): a father of one of the players who, despite his drinking, is quite knowledgeable of the game.
The one part of Hoosiers' story that elevates it above other sports films is how it happens in a place that would appear as a tiny dot on a map. That is to say, Hoosiers suggests that some of the best people and some of the best stories can happen in the smallest of places, sort of like how Fargo used the tagline, "A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere", while proceeding to tell a complex story out in snowy, where-the-hell-are-we Minnesota. The players in Hoosiers start the film already being good at basketball; they just need to learn to work with their new coach. The cliches are spun enough so that the journey of the Huskers' basketball team isn't one that's totally by the numbers.
- Hoosiers brings its sweetness out naturally and not by force feeding it. The movie earns its stripes through some clearly defined character development and through maximizing its small-scale setting. Normal Dale and Wilbur Flatch are the two best characters, with both having the same problem: needing to overcome a personal demon in order to do what they love. The whole town of Hickory, Indiana, meanwhile, is small but mighty, and no new coach has to come along to get them to be passionate about their basketball team. The Huskers' run to the state title is a victory for all the small-town people and small-market cities who don't always get in the spotlight: those teams that aren't big-market names like the New York Yankees of baseball and the Los Angeles Lakers of basketball. Small-market sports teams aren't always bad; it's just that they sometimes provide the best stories in sports, and it's the type of story that Hoosiers takes and runs with.
- The cliches are there, but this is one sports movie where they ought to be forgiven. Look past the cliches, and the only other real problem at work is that the movie tries to force a romance between Dale and another teacher at the high school, Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey). I don't know why it's there, nor could I tell you any significance that the romance has on the story. The romance is....there, and that's it. Dale and Myra talk about life and go for some walks together, but that's the extent of what we get between them. Screenwriter Angela Pizzo must have thought it to be extra sweet to have Dale develop feelings for one of the townspeople, until after a few drafts, he realized it was too late for him to do anything else with Dale's romance as a subplot, yet he refused to take out of the script anyway. The romance does nothing for plot progression, and it isn't all that important to Dale's character development. It's supposed to be the sprinkles on top of this ice cream sundae of sweetness, except that the sprinkles have no flavor.
It's debatable to say of Hoosiers is one of the greatest sports films of all time, but it certainly makes a strong case to be one: achieving a high degree of sweetness in spite of all of the usual sports film cliches as well as overcoming a romantic subplot that goes next to nowhere. Gene Hackman thrives as Coach Dale, and Dennis Hopper works wonderfully in his role as the town's drunkard. The movie as a whole is a salute to all of the small-city, small-town, small-whatever teams that almost no one would give a chance to, those teams that had to overcome the odds more than any other team in order to prove that they matter. Even though Hoosiers is about basketball, its salute is to all the small sports teams, no matter the sport. The movie earns its sweetness, and whether you're a sports fan or not, earned sweetness is a sweetness that we can all stand up and cheer for.
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