I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
I'll get to my review of John Sayles' "Eight Men Out" (1988), about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, in just a few paragraphs. But first, a compulsory preamble about the love of baseball. I was 7, and Mr. Peck, Alan's father, who lived upstairs in the six-family at 61 Dewey St., was taking me to my first baseball game.
Now, normally, during my short educational career thus far, my mother struggled mightily to get me out of bed and off to school. Rustling the covers to no avail, moving furniture, rearranging the sloppily tossed jacket on the chair that, in the middle of the night I feared was a saber-toothed tiger, she rattled off the series of events that would surely occur if I didn't get up, have my bowl of Sugar Crisps, and go to school. It was a terrible sequence she portended, all of it ending with me drunk and squeegeeing car windows on the Bowery.
But on this day I was going to Yankee Stadium. When Dora Goldberger entered my bedroom all set to recite the path of my demise, I amazed both myself and her. I jumped out of bed, the very definition of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Gotta get there in time for batting practice, hopefully before the gates are even open. Drink it all in. The house that Ruth built. It truly exists. The most beautiful example of architecture in the world. No sacrilege, the Statue of Liberty is really a sculpture. Watch the hot dog cart guys set up and maybe even have one. Mom would make sure I had enough money, but Mr. Peck would probably treat. And peanuts. In shells, and you throw them on the floor with reckless abandon.
To this day I never fail to experience the exact same thing I felt when emerging from the tunnel and glimpsing the field for the first time — how magnificently green the grass is. It should be a Crayola color. Psst. I have a few blades of it sealed in a bottle from when they used to let you cross the field after the game. Nope. Not for sale.
All these sentiments come hurtling back in a scintillating, heartwarming flood of nostalgia when sitting back, maybe with a bag of peanuts, and watching the superbly evocative "Eight Men Out." While a solidly entertaining chronicle of how the 1919 Chicago White Sox, one of the best ballclubs to ever don the flannels, threw the World Series, it is in the same urgent breath a bluesy rebuke and one of cinema's most ardent paeans to the national pastime.
Echoing in dramatic iteration the great sense of loss that comes of betraying and thus forever losing the warm embrace of a deep-rooted passion, the saga of the 1919 Sox's fall from baseball's grace is hauntingly summed up in the main background tune. Words and lyrics by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer, respectively, released a year before the Sox would come to rue their transgression, a key stanza bemoans:
There'll come a time, now don't forget it
There'll come a time when you'll regret it
Oh babe think think what are you doing
You know my love for you will drive me to ruin
After you've gone, after you've gone away
While not exactly the extreme set of events as were set in motion when "Les Misérables'" Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread for his starving sister, Sayles' adaptation of Eliot Asinof's book melancholily philosophizes about crime, punishment and the often arbitrary manner in which mercy is dangled. And although not quite a full-fledged apologia, wherein it is rationalized that Clifton James' Sox owner Charles Comiskey is reprehensibly tightfisted, all but the most intolerant viewers will find a soft spot for the ballplayers who figured in gambler Arnold Rothstein's treachery.
Inspired art direction that turned minor league stadiums into yesteryear's baseball emporiums, terrific period costumes and jauntily choreographed hitting, running and fielding romanticize the era while providing rollicking counterpoint to the sad sense of betrayal. But it's the individually assayed justifications, lapses in judgement and relationship to the game that earn our enthusiasm.
However, be warned. Some scholars debunk the entire saga, contending that baseball was notoriously corrupt in the early part of the last century, and that the eight culprits of swat weren't nearly the fair-haired boys led astray as portrayed. Still, if it's a tall tale, it's one I subscribe to in the name of democracy, a metaphor for the legitimacy of the American Experiment, sometimes as fallible as the folks aspiring to its perfection. The hope is that penitence and reformation follow sin.
In a pivotal scene, David Strathairn's emotively limned Eddie Cicotte, a star hurler often credited with introducing the knuckleball, stands in Comiskey's office the picture of humankind done wrong. His contract called for an extra $10,000 if he won 30 games, money he was counting on to send his two girls to college. But the owner, who purposely benched Cicotte after he won 29, denying him about five starts, coldly relates, "29 is not 30, Eddie. You will get only the money you deserve."
The pitcher's response, its own mathematical deceit, added up to the "Eight Men Out" necessary to fixing the series.
"Eight Men Out," rated PG, is an Orion Pictures release directed by John Sayles and stars John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney and David Strathairn. Running time: 119 minutes
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