Hoosiers (1986)
Hoosiers (1986)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: November 15th, 1986 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: David Anspaugh Actors: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Sheb Wooley, Fern Persons, Chelcie Ross, Robert Swan, Michael O’Guinne




his town doesn’t like change much.” The year is 1951 when Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) arrives in Indiana to coach basketball for a small, rural, god-fearing high school surrounded by farmland. The position also requires that he teach social studies, which is met with some skepticism by fellow educators – especially Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey). Although he must contend with the small-minded population of Hickory and their reluctance to adopt newfangled ideas – as well as rumors about his hiring by longtime friend, principal Cletus (Sheb Wooley) – Norman’s main problem is the town’s belief that no game is winnable without their star player (Maris Valainis), who has distanced himself from the sport after the death of his father. This also affects the other players, who must struggle to step out of that shadow.

“In my experience, nobody’s irreplaceable.” At the first practice, two of the seven members leave, putting the new manager in a very shorthanded state. His methods also upset the assistant coach, George (Chelcie Ross), who is promptly dismissed from his duties. And the first game against Oolitic ends in a resounding defeat, partly because they play a man down when one of the boys refuses to adhere to Norman’s strict four-passes-before-shooting mandate. His way is the law, whether anyone else understands it or not – and this code certainly doesn’t earn him many friends or much confidence.

Dale’s techniques may be unconventional, but his heart is in the right place. Respect and discipline supplant raw talent; in order to come together as a team, they must start from scratch to relearn the fundamentals. Morale will also be difficult to wrangle, but a comparable underdog – frequently drunk yet studious basketball fan (and “scout”) Wilbur “Shooter” (Dennis Hopper), who also happens to be the father of one of the players – may become the glue that holds everything together.

“I apologize for nothing.” Like the best sports movies, “Hoosiers” isn’t just about basketball. Second chances, willingness to embrace change, moving beyond troubled pasts, sticking up for others, and standing up to an intimidating majority are key concepts, handled with sincerity and potency. There are quite a number of practicing and shooting and gameplay montages, but it’s actually the character interactions that remain most moving, especially considering that many of the on-court maneuvers aren’t designed to be completely clear to viewers. Even the various finals matches have their tensions based around what Norman and Shooter do rather than what specific points are scored or which fouls are called or ignored.

Once again, Hackman is superb, here playing a past-his-prime but no less competent instructor who confidently has nothing to prove. He’s also generous, understanding, stern, stubborn, and determined – qualities quite cinematic for a movie coach. There isn’t quite enough time devoted to fleshing out what led him to Hickory, nor what turned Shooter to drinking, but their murky histories lend a certain unidentifiable, underdog complexity. It ends up not hurting Hackman’s ability to deliver a motivational speech or Hopper from remaining genuine during his darkest moments; they’re incredibly convincing in their roles. And Jerry Goldsmith’s enthusiastic music surely helps the momentum. The climax expectedly centers on a big championship showdown (interestingly, the opponents aren’t designed to be specifically corrupt or crooked or menacing – it’s the unheard-of opportunity to play in an enormous Indianapolis stadium that proves most daunting), but it’s yet again the character relationships and their actions that become most inspirational. This is, however, one of those films in which the final score matters – it wouldn’t have the same impact without the express outcome.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10