A Sound B Extras A
starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Sheb Wooley
screenplay by Angelo Pizzo
directed by David Anspaugh
by Walter Chaw A gifted coach with a past takes over a misfit team and leads them, after some of the usual adversity, to the big game. Why fight it? There's nothing I can say about how sappy and derivative David Anspaugh's revered Hoosiers is without coming off like a scrooge incapable of elation. No demonstration of pedigree, no gesture towards the trophy shelf or war stories about the time we tipped an opposing player over in a port-a-potty just to see the bastard turn blue will make a lick of difference in the quick gauge of the level of bitterness for the nerd unwilling to surrender to the glory of such astonishingly polished underdog crap. Why fight it when what Hoosiers does--and does magnificently--is capture exactly how childish (and childishly exhilarating) sports can be--how it's an exclusive boy's club that underscores those infant verities of honour, brotherhood, and courage under fire in a ritualized environment only trumped in its bloodlust by certain communal religious ceremonies. If Hoosiers understands anything, it's that while there is, in fact, crying in baseball (and basketball, and football, hockey, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, etc.), there's no such thing as subtlety in the absolute tyranny of the interplay between muscle, sinew, and pigskin.
Inspired by one of those almost mythological contests in which peewee Milan upset Indiana High School's powerhouse basketball team Muncie (see also the U.S. hockey team's upset of Russia in the Lake Placid Olympics and the subsequent fictionalization of the same in the similarly schmaltzy Miracle), Hoosiers promptly jettisons nuance--there's that word again, verboten in the red states--in favour of great big sloppy gouts of pre-digested sentiment. There's no reason this movie-of-the-week should work, what with its familiar uplift, clockwork conflicts, and pencil-thin characters, yet work it does, tugging at the heartstrings like a claw hammer disembowelling a piano. It understands in a precise way that sports can bring a community together--as well as be the story of a man's self-esteem for the rest of his life. Coach Dale (Gene Hackman, wondrous) responds to someone speaking of the ill-advisedness of such a thing in a long, frustrated life with "Most people would give anything to be treated like a god. Just for a minute!" Hoosiers is about not existential crisis, but the joy of peaking early. It doesn't really respect its characters, see--it just cares that you identify for a moment with the feeling of having comrades united in an impossible task against impossible odds. Basketball's the pretext this time, but it could be about storming a bunker, surviving a plane crash, or any other moldy-oldie tall tale coaches use to motivate their teams at halftime.
Hoosiers is almost an archetype: its story movements are broad and familiar and Anspaugh's lead foot from the director's chair is matched, plod for plod, by Jerry Goldsmith's excruciatingly obvious score and a banal screenplay by Angelo Pizzo (also the writer of, hold onto your shorts, Anspaugh's Rudy and The Game of Their Lives). The love story between grizzled coach Dale and dour spinster Myra (Barbara Hershey, ridiculous) is underfed and superfluous besides (the revelation that most of it was cut from the final release is a surprise, because there's still too much of it left in there), and though the final game is shot with a certain amount of wisdom, the other games are reduced to confused montages and, in one disturbing moment, a kind of racial shorthand that identifies the team rebounding by the colour of their arms. That being said, there's nothing like racial tension in the film (although our small-town heroes play an all-black team for the finals, a glance at the archival footage reveals that this was a matter of fact), nor is there really any other kind of tension: no burning rubbish on coach's lawn after a loss; no doubt in anyone's mind that town drunk Shooter (Dennis Hopper, in one of the nine-hundred films he made in 1986--and the least interesting one at that (and predictably, it's the one for which he received an Oscar nomination)) will get his feel-good moment; and no question/curiosity as to whether the lovable Bobby Knight-manqué will suck face with the non-descript sourpuss of a schoolmarm. Just knowing that a real-life "Bob" was renamed the marginally more homespun "Jimmy" for the film says everything there is to say. Hoosiers is a terrible movie that happens to be one of the most effective and popular cornball classics of all time. Why fight it? More of them than us, anyhow.
MGM reissues Hoosiers in its very own 2-disc Collector's Edition (how many of these babies need to be destroyed before yours is actually valuable, do you think?), packing it into one o' them newfangled gatefolds with a pebbled cardboard slipcover meant to resemble, I think, the surface of a basketball. Find the film on the first disc in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that adjusts every aspect of the bare-bones DVD's 4:3 letterbox presentation--hues, saturation, contrast, framing--for the better. The DD 5.1 remix of the previous edition is ported over, on the other hand, and remains front-heavy and unimaginative, much like the film itself.
A freshly-recorded yak-track featuring Anspaugh and Pizzo will probably be of interest to the fan but is a little like pulling teeth for the rest of us. At the fifteen-minute mark, Pizzo tells a story of his writing of the screenplay to which Anspaugh takes umbrage, inserting a pointed "we" where Pizzo had used "I" as in "We, we wanted this." It could be playful or it could be genuinely peeved, so it demonstrates either that Anspaugh doesn't have a sense of humour (not unlikely, given his parade of dreadful, deadening films--Fresh Horses, anyone?), or that he's one of those grade-A Hollywood assholes with a chip the size of a Brahma bull on his shoulder masking a deep well of insecurity. The two continue on from there, trainspotting folks like Sheb Wooley, discussing the picture's authenticity, and remembering how much it rained, only to start getting on each others' nerves once more. If they can't stand one another (even if it's only flirty, pretend dislike), you can imagine how we feel by track's end. What I would have liked, personally, is a musing on why basketball produces stuff like this, Space Jam, Like Mike, and The Sixth Man (declaring Hoosiers the best basketball movie is like putting a ribbon on a pig) while baseball gets Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Pride of the Yankees; why football gets The Longest Yard, North Dallas Forty, Friday Night Lights and hockey gets Slap Shot. I know that Hackman's great, but he's as great in the Keanu Reeves replacement football player comedy.
A trailer sends us into the second disc, which has as its centerpiece the long, windy, recently-minted making-of documentary "Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend" (30 mins.). Opening with Pizzo providing a definition of "hoosier," the piece is immediately placed in the same league as those Optimists International Club orations that begin with "Webster's defines hoosier as...BUT." There is an expectation initially that we'll recognize the various talking heads here--something that's never safe to presume--and it's not until well into the proceedings that the yahoos in charge decide to actually identify the interviewees. It's arrogant to presume that we know what Anspaugh looks like, for instance, and it only avalanches this feeling of mistrust and dislike that's festering in the curious after, presumably, suffering through the yakker. Interviews with Hackman and Hopper are predictable, as are those with surviving members of the Milan team. My favourite clip is a very brief soundbite from one of the players on the losing Muncie team, who bitterly recalls how shocking it was for them to lose to a backwater clapboard, "Little House on the Prairie" school like Milan. You gotta admire the longevity of that kind of bile: that's what sports are all about, man. For the extra-inquisitive and the super-patient, the entire Muncie vs. Milan game is offered in its complete form in an almost-translucent archival presentation (42 mins.) possibly sourced from 8mm elements. Final score? 30-32. Superimposing a scoreboard graphic would've added a bit of flavour--but colour me impressed that it was included at all.
Approximately thirty-minutes' worth of deleted scenes run the gamut from hard-to-watch to impossible-to-watch. The film could have been worse, believe it or not, and here's the evidence. My favourite elision is the one that obviously cribs the barn-raising scene from Witness (down to Goldsmith's sticky-fingered score), subbing key narrative for endless shots of hoosiers wandering around their fields in what amounts to the world's most unappealing tourism video. Those sharp-eyed viewers noting that certain scenes are missing from the formula for crapulence like this will feel heartened by the part where the players gather in a show of support, the part where the banished kid orates on how he's played ball his entire life for his hometown and, damnit, he ain't gonna stop now, the part where the love interest takes a public stand and thaws a little, and more parts where the provincial locals razz the out-of-towner but good were indeed shot. For our pleasure, Anspaugh and Pizzo introduce each individual scene, getting into a scrap at one point trying to figure out where a specific one was supposed to go. Their insights are generally along the lines of regretting having cut the scenes in question and, sometimes, revealing the number of times they are asked about the inconsistencies in the picture directly addressed in these lamented vignettes. If body language means anything, these two guys are sick of each other's shit--and who can blame them? A 40+ image gallery sounds the buzzer. Originally published: April 22, 2005.