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From the film archives: 'Hoosiers' a great, feel-good flick

POSTED: March 27, 2014 12:45 a.m.

Basketball is nearly inescapable this time of the year. The NCAA Men’s Final Four Championship is right around the corner and people are obsessing over the brackets.

Since most basketball players started out in high school, I decided to honor that origin by revisiting the 1986 film “Hoosiers.”

At the surface level, “Hoosiers” is your quintessential high school sports comeback story. Based on the true story of a small-town Indiana high school team that made it to the 1954 state finals, the movie is comprised of a familiar formula. A mysterious new coach takes over a talented but undisciplined team, they practice and face challenges together and ultimately find success.

But the formula is populated by mostly believable characters who must learn to navigate their own individual struggles. “Hoosiers” is as much about these small but emotional triumphs as it is about leading an unlikely group of athletes to the state championship.

The movie starts with Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a former college basketball coach with a questionable past, who moves to a tiny Indiana farming town to coach the local high school team, the Hickory Huskers. The school is so small it can barely field a full team, let alone entertain any hopes of winning any significant victories. Dale is determined to change that.

Basketball is nothing short of a religion to this close-knit community. Young talents are treated like idols, and outside influence is resisted by nearly everyone. Dale is forced to balance teenage egos, local politics, troubled family lives and his own personal doubts to keep the team together.

Local parents, who all think they should have been coach, criticize Dale incessantly and at one point call a town meeting to vote on his removal. However, the coach never stops shaking things up.

Dale invites Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town drunk and father of one of the players, to be the assistant coach with the stipulation of him being sober. The town people maintain Shooter is a lost cause, and, to an extent, they are right. After a few small victories, he shows up to a game drunk and makes a scene.

However, the brief period of respect Shooter receives as assistant coach is enough motivation for him to clean up his act. After a stint in the hospital, he emerges sober and triumphant. It is victories like these that make “Hoosiers” a great movie.

Like Shooter, Dale is himself a very complex character. Hackman manages to portray these complexities in a subtle, believable way. We never truly learn about Dale’s past, yet we witness his transformation.

When the movie came out nearly 30 years ago, it was well received by critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of five stars, and Hopper was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Shooter.

Not everything in “Hoosiers” is well-crafted though. A romance sparks between Dale and another high school teacher seemingly comes out of nowhere and develops into nothing. In the end, it feels like key scenes were left on the editing room floor.

Additionally, much of the movie is extremely predictable. The characters and team triumph over every single obstacle, which cheapens each success and makes the movie difficult to believe overall.

These drawbacks aren’t enough to make “Hoosiers” a bad movie, and it has stood the test of time.

Overall, it is a great feel-good movie even if it is hard to take seriously at times.

Andrew Akers is a part-time reporter for The Times. He can be reached at aakers@gainesvilletimes.com.


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