When I heard that a movie was being made about Milan (Indiana) High School's improbable 1954 boys' basketball state championship54, I was excited. Not only because I, like most Hoosiers, love basketball but also because of my family connection to "The Milan Miracle," as it's widely known. One of my uncles, Bob Wichmann, was a member of that team. MHS was by far the smallest school to win the championship in Indiana's 87 years of single class basketball. I was really looking forward to see who they were going to choose to play Uncle Bob!
When I learned around the time of the movie's release that it wasn't going to be be an actual biography but merely inspired by the Milan 1954 team, I was disappointed. Shortly afterward, on my 16th birthday, my maternal grandparents - Uncle Bob's parents - took me to see the movie at a theater. I didn't dislike it but I had a hard time being objective about it because it was something other than what hoped it would be.
But I recently gave "Hoosiers" another shot. I bought its two DVD collector's edition - largely for the bonus features - and saw the movie for only the second time ever and the first time in 18 years, a little over half of my life. The second time, I managed to view it simply as it is as opposed to my original expectations and I enjoyed it much more.
"Hoosiers" in a fictional story about the 1951-52 Hickory High School team. The Huskers are coming off a solid 15-10 season but are now in disarray following the death of their coach and the subsequent departure of their best player, the painfully quiet Jimmy Chitwood (played by Maris Valainis).
Their new coach, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), arrives after practice for the new season has already begun. Dale is a former college coach who has spent the last 10 years in the Navy and his tenure with the Huskers gets off to a bad start. Two of the team's seven remaining players quit during his first practice - though both end up returning - and he alienates much of the town with his dogmatic philosophy and sometimes abrasive style.
Among those not pleased with Dale is fellow teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) who thinks that basketball is over emphasized and academics are under emphasized. She and Dale clash a few times early on, which means, of course, that they end up falling in love.
The season starts off badly for the Huskers and a town meeting is soon scheduled to decide whether to fire Dale of keep him. Fleener has discovered that he was fired from his college coaching job for hitting one of his players but doesn't reveal that information and speaks on his behalf. Still, the audience seems largely unmoved.
It looks like Dale is about to be fired but Chitwood enters like the calvary and, speaking for one of the few times in the movie, says that he is ready to return to playing but will do so only if the coach stays. Dale's job is saved and from there, the team improves greatly and becomes a state championship contender.
You can probably figure out what happens in the end, but the movie works the underdog formula to perfection without being overly cliché.
The performances in "Hoosiers" are great, particularly Dennis Hopper's best supporting actor Oscar nominated role as Shooter, the father of one of the players. Hopper does a phenomenal job of acting like a basketball crazed drunk, though I thought it was a bit much for Dale to make him an assistant coach. That is one of a few cases of over Hollywoodization in this movie.
And where I think the movie succeeds the most is in portraying Indiana's unique love for high school basketball. Many non-Hoosiers who see the movie probably think that the residents criticizing the coach on the street, the caravan of cars traveling to away games, the emotional town meeting on the coach's fate and the general hysteria are an exaggeration. That is not the case.
High school basketball in Indiana was an obsession for several decades and still is, though to a lesser extent. Many small towns passionately embraced the local high school team, which was often a point of unity, identity and pride.
One other strong point about the movie, the late, great Jerry Goldsmith's adrenaline pumping music heightens the emotion of the game scenes down the stretch.
The collector's edition DVD set also contains three bonus features that I think are worthy of mention here:
*A 29 minute documentary about the making of the movie, the Milan '54 story and Indiana's love for basketball.
*The 1954 state championship game between Milan and Muncie Central. I'm almost 100% sure that the commentary is done by Tom Carnegie, who was been the voice of the Indianapolis 500 since 1946. Tom was the commentator on the ESPN broadcast of the game last year.
The game footage is far from great but it's not bad and it's good to have any at all. The audio quality is shaky. But it's great to finally have this monumentally historic game easily available.
*Several deleted scenes, introduced by director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo. In my opinion, a few of the scenes were unnecessary but many should have been included. One of those scenes gives insight in Buddy Walker's (Brad Long) return to the team and several others give deeper insight into the romantic relationship that developed between Dale and Fleener. Pizzo and Anspaugh said they wanted to include some of those scenes but were told by the movie company to make the movie under two hours.
In conclusion, I now greatly enjoy "Hoosiers" as fiction and its new collector's edition DVD set is a great buy for any sports movie fan! 8/10