March madness is sweeping the land as college basketball fanatics fill out their pools and root for underdogs like Gonzaga to shock the world. If you're a basketball fan or just someone who wants to root for the underdog, check out of one the best films of the eighties, and maybe of all time.
Gene Hackman stars in this true story (although spiced up for the screen) about a small Indiana high school basketball team in 1952 that proceeds to unimaginable victories in the state tournament. Little Hickory, Indiana can barely field an entire team and the best player refuses to join the squad after a personal loss, but everyone in town is obsessed with basketball. In steps Norman Dale (Hackman), a coach who seems to be overqualified for the job and hiding a mysterious, dark past. When his good friend and high school principal, Cletus (Sheb Wooley), hires him, Dale realizes that Hickory is his last chance.
He immediately makes enemies with the interim coach, George (Chelcie Ross), when he dismisses him and closes practice to outsiders. The town is up in arms at Dale's unorthodox ways and refusal to listen to their advice. The team starts with a losing streak, which further erodes the coach's credibility. Finally, the town can't take it anymore when Dale hires Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the alcoholic father of one of the players and a former Hickory standout who lost the big game when he was in high school, to be his assistant coach on the condition that he stop drinking.
Will Hickory start winning some games? Can Shooter get off the booze? What is Dale's deep, dark secret? Will Dale be able to keep his job?
Everything about this movie is perfect. Hackman, one of the greatest actors in Hollywood history, is riveting as the complex, likable coach. He is able to convey his character's remorse for his mysterious past as well as his love of the game of basketball. You can easily believe that Norman Dale would be willing to coach any team from the pro level to the Saturday afternoon over-40 league at the YMCA and be just as passionate. Hackman knows when his character needs to be angry, needs to be sad, and needs to be sympathetic to those around him. Dale realizes that he has been given a second chance and is very willing to give others another shot. This is best reflected in his relationship with Shooter.
Dennis Hopper is wonderful as the sad, lost soul who wanders around town in a drunken stupor. Shooter has given up on life and seems content to drink his life away and remember his former high school glories instead of moving on in life. He has become an embarrassment to his son and himself. Hopper, someone familiar with substance abuse, is able to capture Shooter's desperation. Hopper is able to show that, deep down, Shooter wants to be better, but fears failure. He earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the role.
Writer Angelo Pizzo created a wonderful script that captures small town America's obsession with high school sports and the way the townspeople elevate young men and women athletes to the status of gods. Instead of making the film a typical sports story, Pizzo also adds wonderful character development that will draw in other viewers who don't like basketball. Each character seems to be making a comeback or battling a decision they made in the past. Each character is seeking ultimate victory just like the team.
If you can tear yourself away from the NCAA tournament, check out Hoosiers this weekend.
Directed by David Anspaugh
Written by Angelo Pizzo
Gene Hackman Norman Dale
Dennis Hopper Shooter
Barbara Hershey . Myra Fleener
Sheb Wooley .. Cletus
Fern Parsons Opal Fleener
Chelcie Ross George
Maris Valainis . Jimmy
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