Director David Anspaugh
Screenplay Angelo Pizzo
Starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Sheb Wooley, Maris Valainis, David Neidorf, Brad Long, Steve Hollar, Chelcie Ross
All of the commercials for Gavin O’Connor and Ben Affleck’s The Way Back evoke images of another High School coach movie from 34 years prior. The comparisons can’t be unintentional. Hoosiers is one of the few sports movies that has few detractors. It is a simple story on the surface. Like any good story, it steadily weaves more complex ideas into the structure. There are rah rah moments, but there are as many threads that remain unpulled. Not everyone makes it across the finish line.
The story starts as Norman Dale (Hackman) is driving to the town of Hickory, Indiana. He slowly drives through towns. Each town shows different kids shooting baskets. Some of the hoops are quite rickety. None of the hoops look regulation. All of them are being utilized.
Hackman walks quietly into the halls of Hickory High School. He’s taking it all in when the bell rings and the foyer fills up with students. Then he encounters Myra Fleener (Hershey) and the conversation quickly becomes animous:
“Coach Norman Dale: You know, if everyone is as nice as you, country hospitality is gonna get an awful name.
Myra Fleener: What a pleasant thing to say.”
Pretty soon, it’s clear that Myra is one of the nicer voices of the town. There are expectations in the town, and hiring an outsider did not meet those expectations. There is a meeting ahead of his first practice where the men of the town share their expectations with Norman. He listens to each, shakes their hands, then says thanks and just leaves. Only Hackman could pull off a scene like this. It’s in the way he under plays the role of Dale that makes what he does say feel so important.
Jimmy Chitwood (Valainis) is a great player who doesn’t want to play. The previous coach, now deceased, was like a father to him, and he just lost the desire. Norman sees his talent, and he could use Jimmy on his understaffed team. He doesn’t try to cater to Jimmy. He moves on with his small team. He works on the fundamentals, insisting on them even when they lose the first few games.
As if that wasn’t enough, Dale takes on the local town drunk, Shooter (Hopper) as assistant coach. The father of one of the players, he’s given to an historical knowledge of the game. Norman insists he stay sober to keep coaching. He keeps going long enough to have a moment in the sun, then quickly fades back into his addiction. That’s it. He’s stuck.
Back on the team, Jimmy Chitwood shows up just in time to save the coach and bring the season into full swing. There are montages, but the movie doesn’t surrender to them. It would be a waste of incredible talent to surrender the film to a series of flat-footed shots to a moving Jerry Goldsmith synthesizer.
Hackman is at his best here. He doesn’t chew the scenery. He marinates in it. His gift is in being real enough to be affected by and affecting the rest of the cast. He is of and within each moment. In the effort of telling the story, he gives nothing obvious away. I could watch this movie 1000 times and never see the same things, because his every movement tells a story without using the words. When he tells the team “I love you guys,” you feel lucky to even hear the words.
Dennis Hopper was nominated for an Oscar for this film. I am not sure he deserved it. His performance is hackneyed and obvious, even when Hackman reels him into focus. It’s understandable that Hollywood would want to give some love to someone of the Woodstock generation, as the very same group became so dominant in the world of film by this point.
Barbara Hershey is reserved, and exactly what is needed to counter Hackman. She represents the town his outsider coach is invading, and their relationship is the microcosm for the story. Her guarding of Jimmy Chitwood is the giant to be slain. She, like the viewer, is yearning to be convinced by Norman Dale: something can be made of this town down on its luck. To the benefit of the town and the story, Norman Dale stays true to himself. Like a horse whisperer, he makes the young stallion yearn to be part of his pack by turning his back on him and walking away.
The team could be the blandest part of the film. There are sectionalized to work with different aspects of the story. The best thing to see in the early going is when Dale kicks out two of the players right off the bat. One of them comes back, the other sinks out of the picture, never to be seen again. It is a welcome absence of cliche.
There is one dissenter, former assistant George (Ross). Even his movements stay below the radar. We don’t waste any scenes with what we know is going to happen anyway. This makes the moment a cleaner feeling and its result a bigger, more satisfying result.
The film also benefits by not making the other team into the routine antagonist, with bad actors and clearly better players. We know the score will be close in the end. By leaving this out, we’re given more poignant moments that play more effectively and give a more genuine smile to the viewer. This film sets the standard for the sports comeback tale.
(****1/2 out of *****)
The Way Back
Written and Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, Janina Gavankar, Glynn Turman, Brandon Wilson, Jeremy Radin, John Aylward
Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is also a man who has been away from a game he loves at the beginning of The Way Back. He is a former star player, who rejected the game for one reason, and then rejected his marriage and sobriety for another. He’s called in by Father Devine (Aylward) at the beginning of the story. The head coach at his high school had a heart attack and can no longer coach. Cunningham is the first name to come to mind for the leader of Bishop Hayes Catholic High School.
The initial interview between Devin and Cunningham touches lightly on his life, asking if he has kids. Cunningham says no, and we believe it. Unlike Father Devine, we know Cunningham has a problem with alcohol. We don’t know more than this, but obviously there’s a lot going on there. Something tells me the normal interview process, much more a conversation between a man and a priest, would get to at least some of this.
O’Connor’s skill is in not dropping sappy hints along the way. As Cunningham pushes through the early beats of the film, we are concentrating on the work. Still, Cunningham is suffering, but he’s also rising to the challenge.
The Assistant this time is not a snake. Rather, Dan (Madrigal) is a math teacher with no intent on competing for the job. His is the comforting presence of stability every team, good or bad, has waiting to clean messes others leave.
We get used to the familiar story in other respects. We’re almost complacent, thinking this drinking can’t have just disappeared in his life. Then one of the few hints we get, his separated wife, drops back in at a party for the child of friends. We get pieces enough to realize that the two lost a child of their own. More on that later, to be sure.
Affleck is effective at playing some beats that feel well worn. We know he’s had troubles like this in his own life. It looks like the a skin he’s been sporting for some time. The extra mass he picked up to play Batman looks like the weight most middle aged men acquire when the only muscles they use are the ones at their job. All rest is like measure of the way life weighs one down.
As he begins to get comfortable, the team responds to his efforts. They lack size, but they work harder defensively. The team is on the verge of the playoffs. We get examples of kids who learn the hard way. We see kids who were already were working hard learning to appreciate their value.
One disturbing aspect of the story is the use of profanity on the sidelines. I coached for many years at many levels. Never heard that kind of language. This time the language is given attention by the team Chaplain (Radin). Cunningham says that he will work harder to change this. He never does. It’s mind boggling that any coach of young men, doing the coaching in front of all the parents would not face stiff opposition to being so profane during games.
As complacent as we begin to feel, this movie is not about the kids. It’s about Jack crawling out of the hole into which his life has fallen. We see something break when his estranged wife reveals she’s been working on moving past this. We feel it when Jack reveals to her he’s never stopped being angry. Then we see how he’s drowned the anger in alcohol and foggy memories of the night before.
It’s too much to expect that O’Connor is the type of director to allow all of this to be changed by the big win. In fact, it’s in the shadow of one of these wins where we see the train become derailed. This is Gavin O’Connor. The crash in the midst of success.
This is the type of story that Anspaugh’s film lacked the bandwidth to tackle in the Dennis Hopper story. They give it a side story and leave Hopper’s Shooter in the hands of professionals, then back to basketball.
This time O’Connor gives basketball the side story treatment, while we go back to the heart of the problem. Sickness takes center stage at the most inconvenient time. This makes it less of a sports movie, but no less heroic.
(****1/2 out of *****)