"Madison" may play fast and loose with facts (as detailed in a Seattle Times story April 14) about the legendary 1971 Gold Cup hydroplane championship...

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“Madison” may play fast and loose with facts (as detailed in a Seattle Times story April 14) about the legendary 1971 Gold Cup hydroplane championship. It may blatantly tweak circumstances involving Miss Madison driver Jim McCormick’s historic participation in that contest. But it’s also a touching, spirited family movie that, in the “Rocky” tradition, is about a sports challenge that represents the hopes and aspirations of characters with little reason to expect success.

Set against a backdrop of working-class anxiety — with business closures and layoffs rife in the riverside town of Madison, Ind. — the story concerns former hydroplane racer McCormick’s return to Miss Madison’s driver’s seat in the face of widespread skepticism. (Shot in 2001, “Madison” was delayed for release until now.)

Mount Vernon native Jim Caviezel is characteristically charismatic as McCormick, a renowned driver who has stopped racing because of an accident and now seems lost, supporting his family as a repairman. Wife Bonnie (Mary McCormack) wants to leave the depressed city, but McCormick is still attached to Miss Madison, leading an all-volunteer crew keeping her patched together. The effort seems futile since the boat’s drivers typically end up stranded during competitions, her engines spewing black smoke. Miss Madison has become a laughingstock on the race circuit, yet hometown pride keeps McCormick and other Madison locals hanging on.

When the town wins the rights to host the Gold Cup, pressure on McCormick escalates. Co-writer and director William Bindley paints a hopeless picture: Bonnie walks out, the boat is falling apart, the town can’t pay hosting expenses. But rallied friends and a leap of faith here and there make it easy to get behind McCormick’s Gold Cup dream, particularly when he decides to dust off his driver’s helmet and get back in the saddle again.

The story’s point-of-view belongs to McCormick’s taciturn young son, Mike (Jake Lloyd), who shares his dad’s against-all-odds hopes as well as his defeats. Theirs is one of several real and figurative father-son relationships that are key to the film.

Bruce Dern proves a welcome, warm presence as McCormick’s engineering mentor, and Paul Dooley is golden as Madison’s glad-handing but wise mayor. (Dooley’s presence links “Madison” to another Indiana-based racing film, Peter Yates’ delightful 1979 “Breaking Away.” Look for Bindley’s quick homage to that earlier movie in a shot involving Dooley, a parked car and a radio.)

Even if you’re not a hydro fan, the film’s racing footage (shot by “About Schmidt” cinematographer James Glennon, and sometimes seen from the drivers’ half-blind perspective) is thrilling. End-credit images of the real Jim and Mike McCormick are enough to melt the hardest of hearts.

“Madison” is not a paean to noisy boys’ toys but a story of a man trying to find his way back to himself.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com