Getting it right has never been a particularly important, or in some cases, even desirable, part of filmmaking—the best movies create their own reality, and if Casablanca wasn't really like that, you're probably better off not knowing it—but getting it right can be crucial to the making of a good sports movie. Over the past several years a sizable body of sports movies for the undemanding has grown up (see the Rocky roman numeral of your choice), while the better-intentioned attempts generally laid an egg at the box office.
The last American sports movie that really seemed to get it right was Breaking Away, which was about bicycle racing in Indiana. Now, curiously, comes Hoosiers, a movie about high school basketball in Indiana made with lapidary care. The result is a goosebump ride through Indiana's legendary state basketball tournament—a ride that is so wonderfully corny you have to enjoy it.
Hoosiers is about redemption and virtue rewarded, and about what it's like to live in a small town where basketball is your whole life. Shortly after Norman Dale arrives to coach the Hickory High team, he is confronted by an angry English teacher (played by Barbara Hershey) who is trying to keep the best player in town from going out for the team. She is afraid he will be treated like a god until he has finished playing, then forgotten. The coach, played with great understatement by Gene Hackman, feels that she has missed the point. "A lot of people would kill to be a god for even a few minutes," he says. Hoosiers examines those few minutes, and what it feels like to be a god, and the film is thrilling.
Director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo know the terrain, having attended Indiana University together, and they take almost no false steps here when just a few could have turned Hoosiers mawkish. Anspaugh builds up so much credibility by getting the details right that when he takes chances, he usually gets away with them. When a minister's son comes off the Hickory bench, he first drops to his knee in prayer, holding up the game momentarily. Finally, the coach says to him plaintively, "Strap, God wants you on the floor," and the player runs out and immediately scores two baskets. In another risky scene that somehow works in this movie, the Hickory players sit in a circle in the locker room before the big game (there had to be a big game) and announce who they're dedicating the game to. It is oddly affecting, because it feels true. Hoosiers gets it right.