Madison, Indiana has a proud water heritage. Perched beside the Ohio River, the settlement quickly blossomed into a bustling port feeding needed supplies to a growing nation. Along with the cargo barges and paddle wheelers came a desire for speed, which gave birth to the first professional boat race to be held in the United States.
Still clinging to these traditions almost a century later, the community has invested in its own hydroplane craft that it enters into a countrywide competition every year. The only trouble is by 1971 both the town and its namesake, the Miss Madison, are on a losing streak.
With the expense of water transportation making their number one industry obsolete, the population is drying up as quickly as any economic opportunities. While most of the residents accept the changing tides, Jim McCormick (Jim Caviezel) refuses to move on. As part of the team that keeps the Miss Madison afloat, he still has faith in the aging boat and town. Despite engine failures and chiding from better-outfitted competitors, the racing enthusiast lends his day-job repairman skills and dogged determination to buoy up the spirits of the driver and other crewmembers.
At first the local citizens, his long-suffering wife Bonnie (Mary McCormack) and his idolizing son Mike (Jake Lloyd) offer their support. They even work together to scrape up $50,000 to host the Gold Cup Championship, the sport's culminating event. But after a series of misfortunes, ranging from mechanical malfunctions to fatal explosions, even the most ardent fans jump ship, surrendering to the inevitable defeat. All alone, Jim is forced to face his greatest fear: Is his desire to win one for the hometown strong enough for him to get back behind the wheel and try to steer his dreams to victory? It's a question he has chosen to ignore for the past nine years, after his best friend was killed and he was injured during a traumatic boat race.
Base on a true story, Madison has all the ingredients of a successful motion picture: fast paced action (the hydroplane boats are capable of 180mph), an underdog hero bravely tackling unbeatable odds and a big-money sponsored antagonist. Throw in a loving family relationship as well as some internal/external conflict, and it should be a real crowd pleaser.
And for the most part it is, with the exceptions of some content issues such as mild language, scenes depicting perilous situations (like the flash back of Jim's life altering accident), and a few incidents of law bending when the sinking team find themselves up stream without a paddle. The movie's only other flaw is answering why it's worth risking life and limb for a trophy. Although the script includes some narration to the effect that, "only someone who has competed at this level would understand why so many men have given their lives for the sport of boat racing," its failure to explain the emotional motivation may leave the audience feeling like the film falters at the finish line.