ESPN Films: Catching Hell (2011)

Written & Directed by Alex Gibney

Even if you are not a fan of baseball, you have probably heard of Steve Bartman. And if you recognize the name but can’t remember from where, I am sure the above image rings a bell at least somewhat. Bartman has become an image, an ideal, or better the opposite of an ideal. Steve Bartman is, and was, a scapegoat for years of infamy, for a sports team who was on the door step of something their fans had never seen, a championship. In 2003, the Chicago Cubs baseball team had a 3 games to 2 lead over the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series, and in game 6, a 3-0 lead as late as the 8th inning. They were 5 outs away from going to the World Series, something they had not done since 1945, and something they had not won since 1908. Enter Steve Bartman, his glasses, his sweatshirt and his headphones.

Alex Gibney is an Academy Award winning documentarian, winning for Taxi to the Dark Side, but he is also all too familiar with the type of heartbreak Cub fans saw that year because Gibney is from Boston. The Boston Red Sox saw the same type of futility as the Cubs for many years, including the famous ball booted by Bill Buckner in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. However, Buckner has been “forgiven”, an unfortunate term as one interviewee remarked, by Red Sox fans mostly due to the fact that the team has now won 2 World Series titles in the last decade. The same cannot be said for the Cubs, whose losing streak continues.

This review could quickly become a commentary on my own thoughts on that fateful night for Steve Bartman and all that followed since I am such a huge baseball fanatic, but that would be a disservice to the wonderful film Gibney made. Gibney sets up the film by showing himself on a Chicago area radio show on which he discusses the nature of the film, Steve Bartman specifically, and from there, sets up a good connection to Buckner and the idea of scapegoating, but the film really picks up when he pieces together the chronological events of that 8th inning inside Wrigley Field and everything that followed. It plays out as some kind of brilliant thriller or bank heist, with Bartman as the objective, the loot with which the Cubs fans want to get away with.

Gibney uses a variety of effective sources and methods. He interviews a number of fans who were there that night, including people who were sitting very close to Bartman, as well as those, like filmmaker Matt Liston, who documented the action from camcorders. But Gibney really covers his bases, also interviewing the men who helped make the Bartman story more than it should have been, FOX Sports analyst Steve Lyons, as well as his producer, and Cubs leftfielder Moises Alou, whose bombastic reaction following the play just fueled the fans to hate Bartman more. And perhaps that is the only important question Gibney failed to ask Alou, how he felt about his reaction to the play and how it influenced everything else. Bartman, true to his reclusive response to the whole debacle, was not interviewed for the film. Although his words would have contributed so much to the film, his absence almost says more about everything than any words he could have formed.

In addition to being a good document of what transpired in the life of Steve Bartman, Gibney’s film explores the idea of the scapegoat effectively, even if he does unfortunately interview a minister who adds little to the proceedings other than the origin of the term. But I hope that once and for all it can show how ruthless people can be. How sports drive people mad. Just look at this event, as well the one that ocurred earlier this year when a fan was beaten in the parking lot simply because the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are rival teams. I hope people can see Bartman did nothing wrong. He did nothing anyone else wouldn’t have. Catching Hell is a very good sports documentary, and one that I find interesting failed to make it into the final cut for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. I wonder what the story there is. Perhaps Gibney was just making sure his film was as finely crafted as it was when all was said and done.


Written by

Adam Kuhn is a film critic and blogger at Corndog Chats. He started Corndog Chats in 2009 at the behest of his friends, and is very glad he did. Since then, he has been a contributor to The News Record and Bearcast Media, the student newspaper and radio station of the University of Cincinnati respectively, and most recently a member of the Columbus Film Critics Association.

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