The Smackdown. We cheer as Eliza Doolittle becomes My Fair Lady and when The Soloist Nathaniel Ayers recovers himself through music. Along the way the facts blur that one movie is based on a true story, the other is fiction since both say something meaningful about beating the odds and personal redemption. Sometimes the distinctions don't matter and sometimes they do.
Few people beat longer odds than Michael Oher, whose life story (the biggest parts) is the heart of The Blind Side. The marketing promos emphasize Sandra Bullock as a comedic southern fried Pollyanna, but not the throwaway kid whose real life – off the football field, and on – gives this material its backbone. It's a story where the distinctions matter.
Fiction and fact reinforce one another in 1986's Hoosiers. It carries one of those "based on a true story" qualifiers that accompany those enhancements tacked onto many films. Even with those elements acknowledged, Hoosiers remains a popular and well-made story of a David -vs- Goliath Smackdown on an Indiana basketball court.
So here's the Smackdown: Deciding whether a movie works better when it leans on the facts, or as fiction "based on a true story."
The Challenger. We meet "Big Mike" (Quinton Aaron) Oher shooting hoops with another child in a Memphis school yard. A local church school enrolls Mike because "it's the right thing to do" and he might be a hell of a football player. No wonder why: Mike is well over 6 feet tall and 300 pounds, but his football skills are raw. He spent his life surviving his circumstances: a crack mom, no dad and no definite home. In a driving rainstorm Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) encounters Mike while picking up her kids at school. That moment changes everything for the Tuohys and the large black teen who becomes part of the family. It's not an easy fit: Michael (the name he prefers) never had a bed, or acquired study habits and racism is just a comment away. "Shame on you," Leigh Anne tells one of her girlfriends over an overpriced salad. Extraordinary efforts fueled by the Tuohy's love and money help Michael get onto the football field and toward a scholarship at their alma mater, the University of Mississippi.John Lee Hancock directed his screenplay from Michael Lewis' riveting book, "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game."
The Defending Champion.The tagline says everything about Hoosiers: They needed a second chance to finish first. Norman Dale (Gene Hackman, perfectly cast) rolls into rural Indiana to coach basketball at tiny Hickory High School. It's his last gasp at reviving a career impulsively thrown away. The coach soon rubs the townsfolk, players and school principal Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) the wrong way. He keeps his gig only through the intervention of the local basketball phenom ("If he goes, I go"). From that point on, things move ahead for Coach Dale, Myra and the team all the way to the state finals.
The Scorecard. Both films handle the sports sequences very well and Hoosiers uses Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score to great effect. This movie is carried by mature intelligent dialogue and a believable sense of place. Hackman and Hershey look exactly right, and Dennis Hopper gives an Oscar-nominated performance as the town drunk. Tiny Milan High – not Hickory High – played the actual game featured in Indiana. This discrepancy and other fictional elements do not tarnish Hoosiers' power to inspire. David Anspaugh directed Angelo Pizzo's screenplay.
The Blind Side hits many of the same notes, and Sandra Bullock leads an especially good cast. Aaron is quite credible as Michael Oher; the Tuohys (Tim McGraw, Jae Head and Lily Collins) and Kathy Bates are memorable. Bullock's Leigh Anne is a blond-streaked force of nature you like better as the film goes on. This might be her best work and helps dispel easy stereotypes about Southerners. The Blind Side doesn't ignore the rednecks and intolerance in their midst – but they are balanced by the kind and decent sort whose example defies the reputation. This film takes real pleasure in trotting out several well-known characters in Southern football: Nick Saban, Tommy Tuberville, Phillip Fulmer, Lou Holtz, Houston Nutt. They flavor this gumbo nicely.
The Blind Side inspires and disturbs, because events portrayed in Michael Oher's life really occurred. If this was fiction you'd call it manipulative, condescending junk, but it's not. Most amazing, Michael Oher is currently protecting his quarterback's blind side as the starting left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. The Tuohys changed his life forever. He did the same to them.
This one is an easy call.
The Decision. Hoosiers will never be less than a fine, satisfying film. What I love about the movie has not dimmed over time. Hackman and Hershey remain a pleasure to watch and Hoosiers stirs the heart of anyone who ever lined up against Goliath. This time, it's just fighting out of its weight class.
Reality makes the better story here. The Blind Side offers unlikely real happy endings. It's especially fun to see photos of the real Tuohys and Michael Oher during the final credits. Want a special experience? Try the Michael Lewis book tonight, and tomorrow, see our winner – The Blind Side.