In 1986's Hoosiers--by far the finest basketball film out there--Gene Hackman is the bearish, enigmatic new teacher/coach at the tiny 1950s-era high school that anchors the Indiana farm town of Hickory. With its small student body and a dwindling supply of basketball talents to match, the coach finds himself against the bleachers in shaping a winning team (even the well-cast townspeople, who're mighty serious about their basketball, are on his back). He's got a star who refuses to play (Maris Valanis), another whose dad (Dennis Hopper) was long ago the Hickory team's great hope but who's spent the ensuing years as town drunk, a boss and best friend (Sheb Wooley) who's hitting the sickbed, and a teaching colleague (Barbara Hershey) who resents Hackman's and the town's passion for the game. And things get worse for Hackman before they get better.
It's all pure and simple corn, but it's mighty tasty corn. Based on a true story, adapted by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh (formerly a director/producer on TV's Hill Street Blues), Hoosiers manages to be one of those uplifting sports movies that doesn't make you feel like a dupe for cheering. Its writing is smart, its blue-hued period detail is convincing, and the unusual Jerry Goldsmith score is decidedly rousing in the right places. And though the acting is terrific all around (Hackman is particularly arresting in his scenes with the boys), it's Hopper who absconds with the film; as Shooter, he provides Hoosiers with many of its emotional highlights (his few words to his estranged son before a game is the stuff of cliche, but this nervous, sweaty character is imbued with a wobbly-voiced dignity that triggers our sentiment). Hopper was nominated for his first--and to date, only--acting Oscar for this supporting role that shines a contrasting light on that other notorious 1986 movie in which he excelled, David Lynch's Blue Velvet. I still think Hopper indubitably deserved the award for his maniacal, Lynchian superman Frank Booth, but he's surely excellent here, too, so we'll have to take what we can get from the Academy. Pizzo and Anspaugh would reteam in 1993 for another underdog sports movie, the arguably more popular Rudy with Sean Astin. But I think Hoosiers is their unassuming, moving highpoint.