The Natural (1984)

Directed by Barry Levinson

There are so many elements to any film or genre. So many moving pieces that must come together around the core of the story of a film in order to make it work on any number of levels. The symphony of cinema is beautiful to witness when it comes together to make a wonderful piece of art. Sometimes there are some bad notes here and there to sour the experience ever so slightly, or the melody becomes too well trodden to export the viewer to a different place, to live a few hours with the characters on the screen. And sometimes, quite frankly, the style is just simply not for every viewer, art being subjective as it is. So within the confines of what constitutes a “baseball film”, The Natural has many elements that must come together to synchronize and become what is perceived as a “baseball film”. Its ability to do just this is what makes it a standout among the genre.

After a tidy childhood montage, we quickly learn that Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is a simple farm boy with a great big dream to play major league baseball. He leaves the farm, and his girl (Glenn Close) for Chicago and a major league tryout. Along the way, his legend grows when he encounters sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) and The Whammer (aka Babe Ruth). Hobbs agrees to a prop bet wherein he strikes out The Whammer, the game’s greatest hitter, on three consecutive pitched balls. After encountering a pitfall however, Hobbs never makes his dream come true until some time later in life, where, as an aged man, he is signed on the worst team in the league, the New York Knights. Fighting temptation, love, and perhaps fate, Hobbs begins to build his legacy as the game’s greatest player after a much delayed debut.

There is much that could be said about such a film as The Natural, and in fact I am sure it already has. But I will choose to start with the setting of the film, which becomes much more than simply the location. The Natural creates a setting that is greater than the stadium in which the game is played by incredible cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, whose use of lighting creates an aura that is only matched by the legend of Hobbs. There are sequences of such great beauty instigated by Deschanel’s great work here. Paired with such cinematography, the wondrously familiar score by Randy Newman elevates the images into the realm of mystique, which follows Redford’s Hobbs around the entire film.

For whatever reason, this is the film that feels the most like a baseball movie. There is a folklore narrative at play here which plays on the mystery and legend of Hobbs, making the proceedings full of magic and a sense of awe. The film has a sense of humor with its treatment of Pop (Wilford Brimley) and Brimley’s performance of him, the Lilliputian lecturer, and other elements. This sense of humor helps cut the more melodramatic parts of the film, like Hobbs’s battle of temptation. The film is surrounded by the light and the dark. At each turn there is an indication of temptation, evil in the form of the dark (storm after his father’s passing, the mysterious woman in black, Memo (Kim Basinger) always wearing black. But with a strike of lightning, good presents itself in the form of light in contrast to the dark. Iris (Close) standing out amongst the crowd in a dress of white (a great shot from Deschanel).

There are faults, like the poorly played Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) demise, but most everything about the film drips with mystique and magic, creating, for my money, one of the most iconic baseball films ever made.

**** – Masterpiece

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