Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Film Appreciation - It's Gonna Be a Lonely Bench

Jay Burleson uses Film Appreciation to see March Madness out in style with his favorite basketball film, Hoosiers.

Hoosiers (1986)
Starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, and Dennis Hopper
Directed by David Anspaugh
Written by Angelo Pizzo

Just in time to wrap up the latest men's NCAA Basketball Tournament, here I am with one of my favorite sports films of all time, Hoosiers.

Set in 1950s Indiana, where basketball is king, Hoosiers is about once-acclaimed college coach Norman Dale as he takes a job at Hickory High School, where he instantly becomes public enemy number one with the local supporters of the team. Gene Hackman delivers a fine performance as Dale, a man with a troubled past, and is joined in the cast by the excellent Dennis Hopper as well as Barbara Hershey. Hopper plays "Shooter" the father of one of Dale's players, who lacks the skills to be a father but excels exquisitely at being a drunk. Hershey plays Myra Fleener, a teacher at the school, and the first person that Norman Dale comes in contact with upon his arrival. She doesn't seem very friendly, and has her own preconceived notions about how Coach Dale will operate. She expects that he will do whatever it takes to get a kid that she cares for, Jimmy, to play on the upcoming edition of the basketball team. Jimmy is a local legend for his great abilities on the basketball court, and everyone in town knows that the team could be special as long as he plays.

Coach Dale immediately brings down great ire from the local townsfolk as he runs off two players who don't follow his rules, and pulls the team away from the locals who thought they would have any input on how the team is to be ran. The locals can't believe Dale has been hired even though he hasn't coached in 12 years, and it's obvious they plan to foil him at every turn.  The team is shorthanded so Coach Dale works only with getting them in great physical condition so they don't run out of gas in the games. He practices with no basketball, and when he does, he insists on a certain number of passes before any shots are to be attempted. All of this is done with no Jimmy Chitwood, and the team starts the season off in dismal fashion.

While the team racks up losses, Myra Fleener begins to respect Coach Dale as she gets to see that he is vastly different than she expected. Her first real glimpse of this is when Dale benches a player and refuses to put him back in the game even though another played has fouled out. He insisted that they play with four guys instead of five, which causes the gym to erupt in anger over his decision. With moves like that, as well as constant losing, it's not long before a petition is brought up to rectify the hiring of Coach Dale. They're all set to kick him out on his ass until Jimmy Chitwood shows up at the team meeting and announces that it's about time he started playing ball. This brings great celebration to the meeting and it's even stated that of course Jimmy would join the team now that Norman Dale has been fired. Chitwood throws a loop into the whole ordeal by then adding on that he will only play for Coach Norman Dale. The town immediately decides that they need to vote again. No surprise here, Coach Dale can stay, and now he's got the hot-handed Jimmy Chitwood to lead the way.

During all of this, Coach Dale has recruited Shooter to be an assistant coach for the team. Right from the start, Shooter, played so very well by Dennis Hopper, gives the coach some great advice on an upcoming game and the two become close. It's obvious that Shooter has a great love for the game and means no harm with his input, unlike all the other town folk who want Dale to do things their way. Shooter is brought on as assistant coach under one condition, that he stay sober. This lasts for a while, but ultimately ends in disaster as Shooter can't handle the pressure. This entire subplot is handled with a great amount of realism and no sugarcoated Hollywood happy endings where Shooter never misses a beat and changes his life basically over night. It does a great job of showing a more reasonable outcome, but one that is still very hopeful.

As expected, Coach Dale gets the Hickory team to believe in his system, and Jimmy Chitwood adds the missing firepower that they needed. They embark on an incredible run all the way to the State Championship game against a team much bigger, stronger, and talented than they are. The film is apparently based on a true story, but the only real comparisons that can be made are to another small Indiana school that made an improbable run to the State Championship and won. Everything else seems to be a work of the writer, Angelo Pizzo, and director, David Anspaugh.

This film has some strong childhood memories attached to it that I doubt I'll ever forget. Every year I would visit my grandmother in Southwest Alabama for Christmas. My uncle Ernie was a huge film buff and every afternoon in town seemed to result in another trip to the video store to rent another film. I can distinctly recall one trip in which he sat down to watch Hoosiers and everyone in the room commented on how much he loved it, and how it was his favorite film. They seemed to be saying so in almost a joking manner, but Ernie seemed to be enjoying the movie very much. I can still remember him pointing out a goof in the film as one shot revealed a certain number of players on the team, and within a few shots, the number of players had shrunk with no explanation.

Over the years, I myself came to enjoy the film. It's definitely a great sports movie, and does a great job of telling the story of an underdog. The cinematography and direction are topnotch and the midwest locations add a haunting amount of reality to the Hoosiers world. The film really shines with the great acting from the three mains, Hackman, Hopper, and Hershey. I haven't talked a lot about the players on the team, but the young actors all did a fine job in their roles. Maris Valainis (Jimmy Chitwood), Wade Schenck (Ollie) and Brad Long (Buddy) all stick out in my mind. Ollie has one of the most memorable moments in the film as he has to attempt crucial free throws. Considering Ollie is the smallest player on the team and never plays, there doesn't seem to be much hope for him making them, and he resorts to using the laughable "granny shot" in his attempt. Of course, he gets the job done. I can't end this appreciation without mentioning the lovely opening credits montage and the beautiful landscape captured as Norman Dale drives into town for the first time. Great stuff, and the '80s music isn't too bad either. The opening, as well as the entire small town '50s setting, makes me feel like this entire story could take place right here in Hartselle, Alabama.

So, if you just haven't gotten enough basketball with March Madness ending, then I recommend checking out Hoosiers. Me, and my Uncle Ernie, both highly recommend it.

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