Come on, you movie know-it-alls, you holiday-season cynics, resist "Hoosiers" if you can. (It opens Friday at UA Coronet for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run.) But why would you want to?
It's as engaging, as modest, as utterly American and as thrilling as the true-life story it's based on. In that one, the basketball team from Indiana's Milan High School (that's pronounced Mile-an), enrollment 164, played its way to the 1954 Indiana State basketball championships.
In "Hoosiers," basketball isn't the whole story, it's only a tool: Reclamation is at the heart here. And some of the nicest acting you could hope to see, by Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey.
Hackman plays a short-fused coach, newly arrived, with something unexplained in his past. To him, Hickory is the end of the road. Hershey, who's come back to her home town, is vice principal at the high school, and Hopper plays what's left of a basketball legend in Hickory--its town drunk.
Can you predict what will happen? Probably. It's a classic form, which is part of its satisfaction. What you may not expect is the film makers' approach, which is to tell us as much about the whys of a mythic team, "a bunch of dumb white farm boys," as the hows.
It's written and co-produced by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, a couple of ex-Hoosiers themselves. They have a great feel for all the facets of a small town like Hickory--its plainness, meanness, decency and blank-faced solidity, as well as the almost orgiastic frenzy with which it supports its high school basketball players.
But watching the twilights, the bleakness, the Edward Hopper lighting of its nighttime scenes, you begin to understand what sports must mean to people during these isolate winters, in towns like Cedar Knob and Dugger, Oolitic and Logootee. Fred Murphy, who photographed "Hoosiers," also did the brutishly beautiful "Heartland," set in the western plains states. In his hands weather becomes another character, another force in the story.
The mainspring of the action is Hackman--driving, disciplining, molding a bunch of unmotivated, resentful boys into something resembling a team. With his dry, mirthless laugh in testy encounters with Hershey and his pugnacity on the court, he makes the coach volatile, perhaps dangerous--and absolutely compelling. (Every role of Hackman's seems to be his best work to date, but this performance is a high-water mark.)
As Hackman begins to get his feet under him, he's able to extend himself to Hopper, the father of one of his players (David Neidorf) and the source of the boy's deepest mortification. But Hopper has a scouting coach's eye and a memory for the geography of every gym in the state. To his and the town's horror, Hackman appoints him assistant coach, a potentially disastrous idea since Hopper must stay sober as part of the bargain.
(Can this be "Blue Velvet's" obscene tyrant? He looks a head smaller, a decade older, shrunken into himself. The directorial handling of his last scene verges on the corny, but Hopper is again demoniacally good.)
The faces of these Midwesterners are haunting: Robert Swan (an actor new to me) has an almost silent role as one of the athlete's fathers, one of Hackman's few local supporters, and he is absolutely splendid, as is the more familiar Sheb Wooley as the school principal and Hackman's longtime friend.
There are, of course, quantities of basketball games in "Hoosiers," which C. Timothy O'Meara edited so lucidly that we have no doubt what's going on, and with such fierce pacing that they propel the film. Jerry Goldsmith's music provides a sense of place place with a theme that's broad and noble, regional without being retread Aaron Copland, and hell's own rousing during the competitions.
"Hoosiers" has a few burrs, still. A crucial town meeting scene feels chopped into, as if we had joined it well after the script did. There may be a faintly obligatory feel to the love story, although Hershey is so slow to unfold and so radiant when she does that you forgive a lot. (The film is rated PG.)
Certainly, between the pungency of Pizzo's script and the humanity and tenderness with which Anspaugh is able to invest his characters, these two would seem a debut team to watch. Bear in mind, too, that of the basketball team, only Neidorf had ever acted before. (The veteran Carter De Haven was co-producer.)
One last secret: You can hate everything about basketball, from its ugly uniforms to the sweaty gyms it's played in, and still have a sensational time at "Hoosiers." Of course, if you like the sport, you're in hog heaven. So to speak.
An Orion Pictures Corp./Hemdale Film Corp. presentation of a Carter De Haven Production. Executive producers John Daly, Derek Gibson. Producers De Haven, Angelo Pizzo. Director David Anspaugh. Writer Pizzo. Production design David Nichols. Editor C. Timothy O'Meara. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Associate producer Graham Henderson. Costumes Jane Anderson. With Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Sheb Wooley, Fern Persons, Robert Swan, Chelcie Ross, and Brad Boyle, Steve Hollar, Brad Long, David Neidorf, Kent Poole, Wade Schenck, Scott Summers, Maris Valainis as the Hickory Huskers.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 min.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).