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By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 27, 1987


David Anspaugh
Gene Hackman;
Barbara Hershey;
Dennis Hopper;
Sheb Wooley
Parental guidance suggested

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In "Hoosiers," director David Anspaugh and screen writer Angelo Pizzo have taken the tired "go for it|" dramatics of a David-and-Goliath story and revived it with the fervor of real experience. "Hoosiers" demonstrates that it's not the tale but the telling, for beneath the cliche's lies a rich and detailed portrait of a time, a place and a way of life.

Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) was once one of the top college basketball coaches in the country, but there's something nasty in his past, and that's why he finds himself at a tiny high school in Hickory, Ind. (hence the title). His job is to take a squad so thin it can only regard a foul-out as a major calamity and bring them up against much larger, and wealthier, schools. But it's also something more than that -- he wants to use basketball to teach these boys something about life.

Does he succeed? Those in doubt probably don't see too many movies these days.

There are other problems -- some klutzy glitches in continuity, and a love story (between Hackman and a sterile, one-note Barbara Hershey) that goes nowhere. The action photography flattens the visual excitement of basketball (you can imagine what a Scorsese would do with it), and much of the writing, particularly in the early going, is TV style -- direct and underlined, rather than suggestive and oblique.

But Hackman anchors the movie with a performance of remarkable control. You see his hurt in his glances at his shoes, his little phony chuckle; you can feel him carrying his secret -- it's a rage held together with rubber bands. This is the Hackman of "The Conversation," not "The French Connection," and that may be the true Hackman -- a man not larger than life, but rather smaller.

Opposite Hackman, Dennis Hopper plays Shooter, the town drunk, whom the coach tries to rehabilitate by making him his assistant. Where Hackman's wounds have closed and crusted over, Hopper's are wide open, in the jagged eyes beneath his strong forehead. In creating Shooter, who missed the key shot in the big game and has been down and out ever since, Hopper seems to have drawn on all those years when he was down and out himself. And it is only one of "Hoosiers' " nice resonances that the team's sixth man (Wade Schenck), who is as runty as Shooter, eventually gets a key shot to make, too -- you feel an entire cycle recurring, in a community that runs on cycles.

"Hoosiers" re-creates the organic nature of an actual community -- you feel the basketball in relation to these people's lives, feel the people's relation to the land. The movie is beautifully cast (by Ken Carlson) -- the kids seem like real basketball players, the townspeople seem like they've been there all their lives. It's gorgeously photographed (by Fred Murphy), not merely for pictorial effect, but to create a sense of rootedness. And it's marvelously (and innovatively) scored (by composer Jerry Goldsmith), who weaves together electronics with symphonic effects to create a sense of the rhythmic energy of basketball within a traditional setting.

"Hoosiers" is told from a nostalgic distance, and those allergic to corniness might best be advised to stay home. But what do you expect in a movie about Indiana? Corn is what they make there. And the movie's enormous craftsmanship accumulates till you're actually seduced into believing all its Pepperidge Farm buncombe. That's quite an achievement; on such a tiny budget (under $7 million), it's even astonishing. If you resist the movie's emotional pull, stand up and cheer for the filmmakers and their tiny studio, Hemdale. They're underdogs for real.

"Hoosiers" is rated PG and contains no offensive material.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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