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Movie Review: HOOSIERS – The Sports Movie That Isn’t Really A Sports Movie

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In 2003, Sports Illustrated listed the basketball drama Hoosiers as number six on the magazine’s “50 Greatest Sports Movies of All Time” list.  That’s the lowest the film has ever been regarded among sports movie aficionados; ESPN placed it in the top spot on its “ESPN25: Best Sports Films, 1979-2004,” and sports writers at the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and NBC Sports likewise ranked Hoosiers as the best sports film ever made.

And unlike, say, Caddyshack, Hoosiers doesn’t just appeal to sports buffs (and, in Caddyshack‘s case, marijuana lovers).  Since its release in 1986, critics working for the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and The New York Times have lauded the picture’s artistic merits, propelling it towards solid box office grosses ($28 million in 1986, which translates to about $55 million today) and two Oscar nominations – one for Jerry Goldsmith’s score, and one for Dennis Hopper’s supporting performance.

What I’m saying is, people like this movie.

And I almost didn’t get the appeal.

Don’t get me wrong.  Hoosiers isn’t a bad movie – far from it.  It’s well performed and directed, and the basketball scenes are genuinely rousing.  It’s also, by and large, just an amiable ride, content to coast along on its competent professionalism, and that aspect took me off guard.  I mean, when you think of the great sports movies, you think of passion, whether it’s Bull Durham‘s verbal dexterity or Rocky‘s On the Waterfront­-esque determination or Slap Shot‘s vulgar humor or Rudy/Field of Dreams/Brian’s Song‘s ability to cause any warm-blooded mammal to weep uncontrollably.

Now, look at Hoosiers.  In its depiction of the high-school basketball team trying to win the 1954 state championship in Hickory, Indiana, Hoosiers scales itself to ground level.  The guys on the team are a group of reasonably well-mannered kids who believe in the value of hard work and discipline – you won’t see a lot of inter-team squabbling here.  That goes double for Gene Hackman’s head coach: while he’s prone to an outburst or two, his Norman Dale is a sensitive, focused individual who internalizes most of his strategic planning.

Along those same lines, the rural community of Hickory might be obsessed with the team’s progress, but the grey skies and wide-open plains temper the townspeople’s mania from approaching a Friday Night Lights level of hysteria; like the Royal Theater in The Last Picture Show, basketball exists to give Hickory locals the briefest of escapes from their otherwise humdrum lives.  Ultimately, the most passion Hoosiers evinces comes through Dennis Hopper’s alcoholic assistant coach Shooter, though Hopper plays Shooter less as a wild card (and Lord knows, Hopper can do “Wild Card” quite well) and more as a decent man trying to keep his demons under control.

Director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo have crafted a feature of great subtlety, but I thought it too subtle when I first saw it and lacking many of the ebullient touchstones that a “great” sports movie should have.

Then, on my last viewing, I realized what they were going for, and it all clicked into place.

Hoosiers isn’t a movie about sports.

In Hoosiers, basketball is just the surface.  By itself, it doesn’t benefit the town in any meaningful way, and it certainly doesn’t ensure a life of success and happiness for the team; these are high-school kids, and even though (SPOILER ALERT) they win the big championship game at the end, life’s real challenges haven’t even begun yet.  When they grow up, most of these guys will have problems that cannot be solved in or around a basketball people.

Basketball, you see, is the MacGuffin.  What Hoosiers cares about most is people helping themselves.

Shooter doesn’t want to help out on the team just to relieve the memories of his wasted youth.  He wants to prove to Hickory that he’s not a screw-up anymore and can make a meaningful contribution.  Despite his coaching brilliance, Norman Dale is also chasing redemption.  He lives in the shadow of a scandal, and he needs to eradicate the negative traits in his personality that cost him his reputation.  Even the Myra Fleener character (Barbara Hershey) upholds this thesis.  Fleener doesn’t exist simply to provide Dale a non-basketball love interest; Myra demonstrates that wasted potential and broken dreams don’t just apply to those in high-school basketball – they are universal, and they always sting.

And over the course of Hoosiers‘ 115 minutes, these people go about using the sport to better themselves.  The games the team wins?  Sure, they feel good.  But, in the scheme of things, these are minor victories, and Hoosiers is wise enough to acknowledge that.  Maybe that’s why the film has to take place in the past.  No matter how triumphant that end victory is, by the time we get to watching it, it’s already a memory.  Life, as it must, goes on.

MGM and Twentieth Century Fox’s new 25th Anniversary Blu-ray gives Hoosiers a decent A/V makeover.  The picture is a little soft, though the look suits the Indiana drabness (and, let’s face it, most movies from the ‘80s were a little soft-looking).  That softness carries over to the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is adequate, if not terribly aggressive.

The Blu-ray has a strong roster of bonus supplements.  Anspaugh and Pizzo contribute a great audio commentary, and they also introduce the more-than thirty minutes of deleted scenes.  The disc also explores real-life Indiana basketball culture with the “Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend” featurette as well as with the full-length Milan vs. Muncie championship game that inspired the film.

Hoosiers lacks the flash of other great sports movie classics, but don’t let that discourage you: this is a complex and deeply humane drama about people trying – and sometimes failing – to better themselves.  The basketball stuff is just the icing.

The 25th Anniversary Edition of Hoosiers is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.