Written & Direction by John Sayles
With the recent announcement of the new Baseball Hall of Fame class, which includes my all time favorite player Ken Griffey Jr. as well as Mike Piazza, and the offseason story of Pete Rose applying for reinstatement in the hopes of joining the ranks of the Hall of Fame, it seems only fitting that the next film in my Baseball marathon would be Eight Men Out, a film which chronicles how eight players became banned from the game, including the all time great “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. I wish I could say I timed this on purpose, but unfortunately I did not. After a pretty good run of films in this marathon, which includes two great films I have seen before in The Natural and Bull Durham (I’d rather just forget about The Slugger’s Wife), Eight Men Out comes about as perhaps the more heralded film on the list that I have never seen before.
Set in the year 1919, when baseball was the national pastime of America, Eight Men Out is about one of the best teams in baseball history, the Chicago White Sox. Loaded with talent like Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), Buck Weaver (John Cusack), Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), Hap Felsch (Charlie Sheen), Eddie Collins (Bill Irwin) and led by Kid Gleason (John Mahoney), the White Sox were heavily favored to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. But constantly underpaid by their owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James), eight of the Sox spurned their owner by accepting bribes from professional gamblers Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner) and Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe) to intentionally lose games in the World Series. The players fought for their innocence in the fixing after a few of the players realized the gamblers wanted them to lose the whole series instead of just a few of the games.
The story is one of the more famous ones in Baseball history, especially since it was the only time gambling/fixing is known to have occurred during a World Series. It also speaks to the culture at that time and how it differs so much from today. I am not speaking, of course, on the ability to bet on baseball as gamblers are rampant and look to bet on any kind of sports they can, but rather on the culture of the players and league at the time. With the advent of the players union (1953) and free agency (1975), players rights and salaries became protected. What Eight Men Out shows is a group of players playing under the all mighty control of their owner, motivated to decide to take a bribe to intentionally lose a series which would stand to benefit their owner more than it would themselves.
Perhaps to see such a scenario today, to someone unfamiliar with the evolution of the game, would be startling. For me, such a rabid fan of the game, I am not only familiar with the scandal, but also the conditions that led to it. Reliving them in this film is a fun history lesson, and the film does feel very -by-the-numbers for a film about an historical event. The personalities of the players and circumstances of the team fuel the film to be an entertaining two hours to spend in your free time, but otherwise it feels quite standard and even a little flat. There are no real ebbs and flows to the pace, no real moments of high drama or suspense. Nothing to really hang my hat on as either signature moments are outstanding filmmaking. Instead, the film is merely a solid film, solidly acted, solidly written, solidly made.
I wish I could have attached myself to the film more than I did, being such a big baseball fan, and perhaps I have been jaded with the comedic efforts of Bull Durham and The Bad News Bears, jarred by a return to baseball drama. Perhaps there are too many characters to really build any rapport, or to get to know them at any greater depth than their abilities on the field and motivation to accept a bribe. Perhaps I am not supposed to know these reasons, and I did enjoy the film, I really did. But there was a missing spark. There are good performances, but none great. There are good scenes, but none great. It is a good story, but it is not delivered in any fashion that elevates the film to make it great. At the end of the day, “good” just happens to be the fairly bland, yet still entertaining description of Eight Men Out for me.