Apparently Vice President Mike Pence made reporters watch Hoosiers while flying on Air Force 2 to Australia. It’s his plane, and he can show the press whatever movie he wants. But it’s the fact that he called Hoosiers the best sports movie ever made that needs to be debated because that’s not true. In fact, it's one of the most overrated sports movies of all time.
Hoosers is the mostly fictional story of a small-town high school basketball team in 1950s Indiana. It's a boring, uninspired movie that turns basketball into a dull, tepid sport instead of the fluid ballet of creativity that it really is. Gene Hackman plays the coach, a no-nonsense type who is worshipped by the kind of people who think Bobby Knight was soft on his players. He coaches an underdog group of white kids to the title against the evil kids from the big city. Hackman's coach strips all individuality from his players, and he's the ultimate authoritarian who punishes anyone who has the slightest thought different from his. Hackman's also the type of coach who would bench Michael Jordan for driving the lane for the dunk because the offense demands the ball first be passed 20 times before a shot can be attempted.
Hackman's okay in the role, but he did far better movies in his career. This isn't even his best sports movie, and it's not even the best sports movie he starred in while playing a coach. The movie even manages to tamp down the wild weirdness that defined the career of Dennis Hopper, turning his character into just another generic alcoholic that could have been portrayed by anybody.
So since Pence got this conversation going, here's what we really consider to be the best five sports movies ever made.
This is the story of a minor league hockey team in a dying Northeast steel town. The player-coach is an old-timer barely hanging on. Attendance lags, the team is mediocre. Then come the rumors that the team is going to fold or relocate at the end of the season; enter three goons who can barely skate, and the team is reborn. The brother of screenwriter Nancy Dowd was a minor league hockey player, and most of the movie is based on incidents that either she saw or that were told to her by her brother, like a player being hit in the face with car keys after scoring a goal, then going into the stands and punching the wrong fan; teams getting into pregame fights; and the police showing up at the locker room after a game to arrest players.
It’s a vulgar and violent movie featuring the worst in 1970s fashion. The hockey action features lots of actual hockey players (and actors like Newman and Michael Ontkean who had actually played hockey in the past — Ontkean had been a scholarship hockey player at the University of New Hampshire). The Hanson brothers were based on the real-life Carlson brothers, and two of those brothers played Hansons in the film (the other brother was playing for the Edmonton Oilers at the time of filming).
THE LONGEST YARD
Ryan Murphy fans may know Robert Aldrich only as the volleyball batted back and forth by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But Aldrich had a long, storied career as a director, and one of his best films is The Longest Yard, the story of Paul Crewe, a former NFL star kicked out of the league for point shaving who winds up in prison after a drunk driving spree.
As is a common theme of 1970s sports movies, it’s violent, cynical and profane, with the climax of the film being a brutal football game between the prison guards and the inmates. Burt Reynolds, a former college football player, plays Crewe, and in the game sequences, many of the prison guards are played by active or former NFL players. The game scenes are still a blast to watch, and this is definitely one of the best roles of Reynolds’s career.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS
Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal are the stars of the ultimate underdog movie as Matthau plays a drunk, former minor league pitcher who guides a bunch of little league kids (including O'Neal as his star pitcher) that no other team wants to the league championship, only to lose in the end. It’s an obscene film, more so for the large number of kids cursing. And also as with many '70s films, it’s incredibly dark. Stay away from the sequels, and stay far, far away from the Billy Bob Thornton remake.
This is basically just a silly movie about a team owner putting together the world’s worst major league baseball team so as to drive down attendance, allowing her to break the stadium lease and thus relocate from Cleveland to Miami. Charlie Sheen actually kind of looks like a real major league pitcher, and Tom Berenger looks like a catcher with spent knees. But the breakout stars of this movie are Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano, the Cuban exile who worships voodoo god Jobu and who can’t hit the curveball, and Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, the speedy center fielder. The film also makes great use of Bob Uecker as legendary announcer Harry Doyle.
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There is no reason that Moneyball should have worked as a movie. It’s primarily a book about statistics and how they can be used to build a baseball team. Multiple directors and writers took shots at adapting the book, most famously Steven Soderbergh, who was fired just days before filming was supposed to start. One real-life figure asked that his name be changed in the film when Jonah Hill was hired to play him for the movie, and the movie destroys the reputation of manager Art Howe so that the film’s hero, Billy Beane, can have a villain to fight throughout.
Yet the final product is a thrilling movie featuring star Brad Pitt, in one of his best roles, as Beane. While there are elements that are simplified, the movie does a good job of explaining the statistical concepts behind Beane’s thinking. The baseball sequences are entertaining.
Honorable mentions: Rocky, Miracle, Downhill Racer (Gene Hackman's best sports movie where he also portrays a coach), Le Mans and Semi-Pro.