I don’t know how other people do it, but it’s the promise of baseball season that sustains me through the Maine winter. And after a winter as outright thuggish as this past one, the prospect of Red Sox opening day was like a tiny, glowing green oasis guiding me through yet another sub-zero blizzard parking ban. Now that it’s finally here and the snow is (mostly) gone, let’s all just roll around on the green, green grass of some of the best baseball movies – and throw peanuts at the worst.
“42” (2013). There is no figure in baseball history (perhaps American history) whose courage under incredible pressure moves me like Jackie Robinson. Which is good, since this biopic of the first black man to play modern professional baseball is so thoroughly square. It’s not Chadwick Boseman’s fault – the actor ably embodies Robinson’s dignified response to white America’s incessant abuse during his inaugural season. It’s not even Harrison Ford’s hammy performance as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, even though he seems to be channeling Burgess Meredith in the “Rocky” movies. It’s more that the (admittedly stirring) film treats Robinson’s victory in winning over most of his white teammates as “mission accomplished,” when the man’s battles for racial equality – in the game and elsewhere – were lifelong.
“Eight Men Out” (1988). This recreation of the 1919 Chicago White Sox game-fixing scandal proves director John Sayles to be the truest kind of baseball fan – one who loves the game with clear eyes. Painted as an American tragedy (with a generous helping of Sayles’ signature left-wing humanism), the film views the underpaid, exploited players as workers first, their eventual rebellion an act of foolhardy but understandable self-defense against dictatorial, penurious management. In a great cast, a young John Cusack stands out as Buck Weaver, who refused the gamblers’ money but was banned from baseball for life for trusting his pals to eventually make the right choice. Cusack’s never been better than his heartbreaking speech to some neighborhood kids: “Sometimes, when you feel right, there’s a groove there, and the bat just eases into it and meets that ball. When the bat meets that ball and you feel that ball just give, you know it’s going to go a long way. Damn, if you don’t feel like you’re going to live forever.”
“Bull Durham” (1988). Another film that views baseball as a job while simultaneously expressing what a fantastic job it is, this rambunctious comedy about life in the low minor leagues knows the game from spikes to cap, thanks to writer-director Ron Shelton’s experience as a career minor leaguer. Kevin Costner’s the wily veteran, Tim Robbins the pitcher with all the talent but none of the brains, and Susan Sarandon as the sexy baseball guru/groupie they’re both after. For all the comedy, “Bull Durham” is the most authentic baseball movie ever, in that it knows that loving the game doesn’t guarantee it’ll love you back.
“Major League” (1989). It’s not this overrated baseball movie’s fault that it came out on “Bull Durham’s” heels – but it doesn’t help. Sexist instead of sexy, boorish rather than boisterous, it commits the cardinal sin of being maddeningly inauthentic about baseball. There’s a major character who lasts an entire major league season without once being able to hit a curveball. Think about that.
“Field Of Dreams” (1989). The most shamelessly sentimental and manipulative cinematic love note to the game of baseball – and it gets me every time. Costner again (who should invent a time machine and only star in baseball movies in the 1980s), this time as a spacy farmer who hears voices, makes a baseball diamond, and kidnaps reclusive writer James Earl Jones to teach America the true meaning of baseball. The thing is, he sort of does, with Jones’ final speech encompassing the absurd optimism about the game that I continue to feel in my bones anyway: “It reminds of us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
FRONTIER, Brunswick | explorefrontier.com
Thursday-Sunday: “The Wrecking Crew.” Attention, music lovers – here’s a documentary for you! Like last year’s “Muscle Shoals” or “20 Feet From Stardom,” this documentary gives a day in the sun to legendarily unsung backup musicians, in this case the titular players behind the “West Coast Sound” in the 1960’s and ’70’s.
SPACE GALLERY, Portland | space538.org
Friday: “White God.” Attention, dog lovers – your beloved pooches secretly hate you! At least that’s the premise of this acclaimed Hungarian film about a young girl devastated when her father abandons her beloved dog to the streets – only for all the other unwanted dogs in the country to rise up against their uncaring humans. Thankfully, no dogs are allowed at the screening.