It’s the summer of 1971, and the small river town of Madison, Ind., is facing economic calamity as factories shut down and Madisonites follow jobs to Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Chicago. But Jim McCormick is held fast to the picturesque locale by one thing: speedboat racing.
Madison is one of the original stops on the hydroplane racing boat circuit, but now it competes alongside more glamorous cities such as Miami, Chicago and San Diego. And the town-owned boat, the Miss Madison, starts out with several handicaps. She races against teams with powerhouse sponsors such as Budweiser and Atlas Van Lines. Her 25-year-old engine turns her into an also-ran in the dangerous, fast-paced sport. Jim, the boat’s chief mechanic, is competing with a ghost from his past; a race accident years earlier left him with a limp and killed his friend.
So when the luck of the draw awards the Gold Cup championship race to Madison, Jim and the town see an opportunity to turn around their fortunes. Can they raise the $50,000 needed to get the race to Madison? Can the team get the boat into prime condition so that she can compete in the big race? Can Jim gather up his courage to drive the Miss Madison? Madison’s fate seems to depend on it.
Jim has constructed a strong marriage with Bonnie, and he and son Mike also share a loving bond. The strength of their relationship allows Jim and Bonnie to work through hard times (some of which are generated by Jim’s almost obsessive dedication to the town and the boat).
The entire Miss Madison team acts like a big, extended family. And they are all patient and helpful toward Buddy, a mentally retarded man with a pure, uncomplicated love of the sport who wants to help out around the boat.
After passing the offering basket during a church service, the ushers then pass a basket shaped like a speedboat to raise money for the Miss Madison team. A man crows that he “caught more fish than John the Baptist.” (An odd comment considering the fact that John the Baptist is known in the Gospels for canvassing the wilderness scooping up honey and catching locusts, not walleyes.) Jim’s family holds hands as they say grace over dinner.
Upon leaving for an out-of-town race with his dad, 10-year-old Mike says that he was warned that “no gambling, no whiskey and no women” are allowed while on the road. A man ogles bikini-clad girls through binoculars.
On two occasions racing boats explode in flames, and one driver is killed; we see a helicopter fishing his limp body out of the water. Jim has several flashbacks to his own racing accident, and we see his boat flip through the air after he loses control.
Mike says “d–n,” but his dad immediately rebukes him for it. There are six or so uses each of “d–n“ and “h—.” God’s and Jesus’ names are interjected about a half-dozen times.
Several scenes show men drinking beer at picnics or while working on the boat. Jim and Bonnie have wine at a fancy restaurant. One man smokes cigarettes. The Budweiser name and logo get prominent play, as the company sponsors one of the speedboats.
The townsfolk’s determination to win the race is admirable, but they too often resort to questionable tactics. The mayor kites a $50,000 check—with the cooperation of the bank manager!—in order to get the rights to hold the big race in Madison. And he furtively dips into the city’s coffers to help finance the boat. The Miss Madison team steals an engine part to get the boat into tip-top shape; Mike disobeys his dad and sneaks along on this filching expedition. (When Mike’s small hand proves advantageous in getting this part out of an engine compartment, Jim is no longer mad at him.) Jim reads a fake letter at a town meeting to sway the peoples’ votes.
Jim jokingly tells Mike to lie to his mom about snacking before dinner. Mike plays poker for money with boat team members. Several children, trying to one-up each other, boast about watching R-rated movies. A man loses his temper and calls Buddy a “retard.”
There must be something about the state of Indiana and underdog sports stories: Rudy. Hoosiers. Breaking Away. And now Madison. Some are better than others. Based loosely on real events, this film tells a mostly predictable story about courage and determination overcoming great odds. It also illustrates how Jim’s single-mindedness warps other areas of his life. (His dedication to Miss Madison threatens his relationship with Mrs. McCormick, his wife. And he bends all sorts of rules and engages in outright fraud to keep the town’s hopes alive.)
The filmmakers sensitively portray the family dynamics involved in Jim’s quest, and if they had employed the same unvarnished eye for the other shenanigans, viewers might have something to ponder. Instead, it’s all nudge-nudge, wink-wink when it comes to ethical mischief. Why they felt the need to add this kind of chop to the water in an otherwise good family movie is a mystery.