Hoosiers Review

There are spoilers in this review although I can’t imagine anyone is likely to be remotely surprised at any point during the movie

Hoosiers - released under the title "Best Shot" in the UK - is a beautifully photographed, well acted and genuinely soul-stirring piece of filmmaking. It’s also a con-trick from start to finish, designed to persuade us that we’re witnessing a kinder, gentler America during a time where losers become winners and people really can change their lives for the better. In blunt terms, it’s horseshit. But it’s the kind of horseshit which Hollywood has been spoon-feeding us in one form or another for over a century and we’ve learned to swallow it with only a minimum of fuss. Complaining that Hoosiers is manipulative hogwash is ludicrous because manipulation is the sole reason it exists – it wants to tease us, get us on the edge of our seats and finally raise us up out of them with a tear in our eye and our fists in the air. The real issue is whether it’s good horseshit or bad horseshit and it has to be said that in the hands of debut director David Anspaugh and a quite remarkable cast, it’s almost turned into the proverbial shinola.

To put it simply, Hoosiers is the sports movie from column A, the one where the perpetual underdogs manage to slay Goliath in the final reel. If that’s given away the ending then I think that’s forgivable since the ending is inevitable from the first moments. Gene Hackman, in a performance which only seems effortless because it’s so good, plays Norman Dale, a has-been basketball coach who turns up as a teacher and coach at the high school in the small town of Hickory, Indiana – a ‘hoosier’ being the colloquial term for a native of that state. He’s only been hired as a favour by an old friend and no-one is particularly impressed when he starts his first training session by getting rid of some of the biggest players because they decide to test his authority. But gradually, and I think you can complete this summary for yourself now, he wins over both the boys and the townspeople – with a little help from spinster Barbara Hershey and semi-reformed drunk Dennis Hopper – and takes the school team to the state finals. For what it’s worth, the film is based on a real David vs Goliath story when the tiny Milan High School beat a team from Muncie in the 1954 Indiana High School Championship and that game is included on the disc as an extra. I’m not sure that truth has much to do with this kind of film though.

What makes the film particularly interesting is the sheer sincerity with which it doles out the clichés. At times, Dennis Hopper’s whole-hearted performance as the alcoholic Shooter is enough to persuade us that we really never have seen a film in which the town drunk turned over a new leaf only to fall off the wagon at a crucial moment. This was Hopper’s calling card to say he had returned – more so than the considerably less mainstream Blue Velvet - and his Oscar nomination indicated that he was more than welcome. What surprises is the method intensity of his performance which blasts through the predictable plot and makes it seem as if something – even if nothing more than a man’s life – is at stake. This, in turn, forces Gene Hackman to ratchet up his performance. Don’t get me wrong, I bow to no-one in my admiration for Hackman and he’s probably my favourite actor, but a good number of his performances rely on his reputation and rapport with the audience to get him through a bad script - Target is a prime example from the mid-eighties. I don’t think Hackman has ever given a bad performance per se, but like his role-model Spencer Tracy, he can be dull and ordinary when he isn’t interested in the work. In Hoosiers, he seems to be heading this way until he gets together with Hopper and then the sparks fly. You can almost see Hackman looking a bit scared as his place at the centre of the film is threatened. Subsequently, Norman Dale becomes a believable, credible person with fears and failings rather than the superman coach of the cliché. Hackman uses his bond with the audience to involve us and persuade us that he has something to lose – even though we know that his winning is as inevitable as night following day.

The wholehearted approach to what is basically sentimental schtick lends Hoosiers a lack of cynicism which is oddly appealing and the script, by Angelo Pizzo, manages to jump through the hoops without allowing the viewer too much time to reflect on how thoroughly they’ve been had. A British viewer such a myself may find some of the intricacies of basketball a little confusing – I have the same problem with baseball and American Football but, come to think of it, I don’t understand cricket either – but when the brilliant editing and Jerry Goldsmith’s soaring score begin to come into play, it doesn’t really matter. The kinaesthetic thrill is everything during the final half hour and the final scenes deliver more than enough tension whether or not you entirely understand what’s going on. David Anspaugh must be given a good deal of credit for this too, along with his ability to evoke aching nostalgia for a time and place which is completely beyond most of the audience’s experience. The opening drive into Hickory is particularly redolent of a time long gone, evoked in Goldsmith’s insidiously memorable title theme and some beautiful cinematography by Fred Murphy.

It’s tempting to allow a feeling of joyous exhilaration to cloud one’s judgement when a piece of Hollywood moonshine is as well made as Hoosiers but I have to come to my senses, albeit briefly. The complexity of the central characters of Norman Dale and Shooter is not extended to the supporting cast. Barbara Hershey is a good actress but she’s stuck in a dull one-note role while wearing one of the dowdiest outfits ever modelled by a female lead. None of the boys are particularly memorable either. They tend to be distinguished by one particular facet of their bodies or their personality; we’ve got the short one, the religious one, the brilliant but ornery one and so on. The only comfort here is that their parents are a pretty stereotypical lot as well. In the scene where they try to sack Norman, until the brilliant but ornery player turns up to support him, is so predictable that if any of the actors forgot their lines, the audience could prompt them.

On a more serious note, in his useful but often irritatingly inconsistent and critically superficial film guide, Leonard Maltin’s little elves worry about how the film could be used as wish-fulfilment for those who dream about the days of all-white basketball teams. Now, I am no expert on such matters but I have two observations to make. Firstly, it would appear – watching the archive TV recording of a 1950s game included on the DVD – that this is historically accurate. Secondly, worrying about how a film may be inadvertently responsible for inflaming socially irresponsible feelings is a pointless task. It would be entirely possible for someone to watch Schindler’s List and become excited at the more graphic scenes of Nazi atrocities but it would be very unfair to blame this on the film. Hoosiers may be naïve and sentimental but it’s not remotely racist – not even accidentally. It’s a film about faith, hope, friendship and the power of belief to overcome even the biggest obstacles. It should be as nauseating as that little summary suggests. The most impressive thing about Hoosiers is how neatly it sidesteps such pitfalls.

The Disc

The history of Hoosiers on DVD is surprisingly complicated. It was originally released by Live Entertainment in 1997 on a disc which was soon withdrawn after Live lost the rights to Orion films. MGM then delivered a barebones DVD on R1 in 2001 and R2 in 2003. Earlier this year, a special edition was released by MGM and this is the disc under review. It’s still available even though MGM have been taken over by Sony Entertainment. Is that clear?

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is an immediate improvement from the 2001 release which was non-anamorphic. Colours are very striking during the games, forming a nice contrast with the often muted shades of the exteriors. There’s more than adequate detail but occasional artifacting plagues the image and I found it rather too grainy throughout. However, the overall impact of the picture is pretty good.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is nothing to write home about. It’s an upmix of the original Stereo track and isn’t much of a surround sound experience, mostly focusing on the front speakers. There’s virtually no use of the .1 LFE apart from to emphasise some of the bassier moments in Goldsmith’s music score. The music comes across best but the dialogue is a little bit low in the mix throughout. I’d prefer to have the original track but David Anspaugh is presumably happy with this as he was involved with the production of the DVD. Sadly, there’s no 2.0 option available as this was reportedly the highlight of the original 1997 release.

The extras are generally worthwhile. There’s a pretty good audio commentary from David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo which, much like the film, covers all the expected bases. It’s all very pleasant and uncontroversial and just a little bit dull. However, it’s very valuable to have some background material on the geography and the historical basis of the film. They’re desperately in love with their movie and that’s rather touching. Also on this first disc is the theatrical trailer.

The rest of the extras are on the second disc, beginning with a documentary called “Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend”. It’s a solid making-of documentary with contributions from the key members of the cast along with Pizzo and Anspaugh. There’s also lots of input from the 1954 Milan High School winning team, most of whom are engaging characters in themselves. Also present are thirty minutes worth of deleted scenes which are introduced by Anspaugh and Pizzo. Some of these are unnecessary but some of them deepen the characters and give Barbara Hershey a bit more to do so it’s a shame they couldn’t have been included. Apparently, Orion Pictures insisted on a finished product that came in at under two hours.

We also get a pleasant photo gallery and the full 1954 championship game. This is archive TV at its most primitive and it’s absolutely fascinating. The picture is so fuzzy you can barely see what’s happening but that’s part of its strangely compelling nature. I didn’t understand any of it but couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

The film has optional subtitles but sadly this doesn't extend to any of the extra features

Hoosiers is the kind of feel-good movie which is just about impossible to resist. It’s manipulative as hell and very sentimental but it’s done with the kind of absolute conviction that this sort of film so desperately needs and the result is some kind of sports movie classic. This Special Edition DVD should please fans of the film and is enough of an improvement on the original release to be cautiously recommended.

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