Thursday, April 6, 2017

Eight Men Out: A Review


Say It Ain't So...

In the past four years, I've developed a passion for baseball.  I don't pretend to know the difference between an ERA and an RBI, but I find baseball to be a beautiful pastime: simultaneously elegant and athletic.  It's a sport with a long legacy, where ethics is held up as something sacrosanct.  Yes, you have your arrogant fools and divas (from the bigoted but brilliant Ty Cobb to the brilliant but immodest Bryce Harper) but for the most part, baseball players are held to a higher standard.  This is at the heart of why those players caught up in the 'Steroid Era' are the subject of fierce debate whether or not they should be enshrined in Cooperstown.  This is why Pete Rose, who has the most hits of any baseball player, still finds himself on the outside looking in, denied a spot among the immortals.

And this is why, on Opening Day for the El Paso Baseball Team, I'm reviewing the film based on the first massive baseball scandal: the so-called Black Sox Scandal, which ruined lives, brought major changes to America's pastime, and has condemned some great ballplayers to a Hall of Shame.  Eight Men Out is a strong drama, perhaps not as in depth as the story might call for, but one that gets at you emotionally if you love the sport.

It's 1919, and the Chicago White Sox are poised for a World Series Championship.  However, behind the veneer of greatness is a team held in virtual contempt by its owner, Charles Comiskey (Clifton James).  He routinely bails on promised bonuses to his players while enriching himself.  Two gamblers, "Sleepy" Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Richard Edson (Billy Maharg) see an opportunity for a quick win: by bribing the White Sox to throw the series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds (then Red Legs), they could make a fortune.

They soon start recruiting men of various enthusiasm.  Two of them, Arnold 'Chick' Gandil (Michael Rooker) and Charles 'Swede' Risberg (Don Harvey) were the main conspirators, in turn luring and pushing others to take a jab at Comiskey by making the money he routinely squelched on with the bribes.  Other conspirators, such as pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Straithairn) go in on the fix to make the money Comiskey wouldn't give him, and two others, Buck Weaver (John Cusack) and 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) appear to go in but then either back out or not have thought things through.

As the World Series gets under way, major betting against the White Sox alarms the gamblers that the fix is already an open secret, especially since there are hints that Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner), the most powerful crooked gambler, is financing the deal.  This sudden shift, along with the actual abysmal playing from the Sox, piques the curiosity of two old-time sports writers, Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) and Ring Larder (the film's writer/director, John Sayles).  They drop hints that there's something rotten at Comiskey Park, but the Sox manage a comeback of sorts (primarily because they haven't been paid). 

Weaver and Jackson in particular do play well, much to the irritation/consternation of the those involved in the fix, but in the end the White Sox lose the Series.  Things appear to settle down despite the whispers that the White Sox threw the World Series, but after a lot of digging by Fullerton and Larder, the scandal explodes.  Comiskey and the other managers, terrified of what might happen if things are seen as anything less than on the level, rush to Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis (John Anderson) to oversee baseball, but the wily old judge pushes hard terms on them.  He insists on being a Commissioner of Baseball with a lifetime contract and total power over the sport.  They acquiesce and the trial of the Eight Black Sox goes forth.

Fullerton and Larder are aware that this is Chicago, a city as corrupt as it is windy.  Weaver insists he knew of the fix but didn't join it, and Jackson, illiterate and a bit naïve, seems perplexed by it all (at one point, he quietly signs a confession with an X).  Being Chicago, the jury finds the men not guilty, and they believe that their careers will go back.

Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Baseball Commissioner, has other plans.

He bans the Eight from baseball for life for either being in on it or knowing about it and not reporting it (though curiously, a 'Clean Sox' player, college-educated Eddie Collins, played by Bill Irwin, did know something but wasn't banned).  At the end, we go to 1925 Hoboken, New Jersey.  Incognito, Buck Weaver, who constantly petitioned whoever the Commissioner was for reinstatement, goes to a game where a player named "Brown" does remarkable feats.  A fan insists it's Joe Jackson, and while Weaver recognizes his old teammate, he says it isn't him.

There's just a sense of unavoidable tragedy in Eight Men Out right from the beginning when we see them in triumph after winning the pennant and a ticket to the World Series.  Eagerly awaiting their bonus, they find to their disappointment that the celebratory champagne brought to them is there 'bonus'.  Adding insult to injury, the champagne is flat.  Sayles does a brilliant job in showing things rather than telling.

Sayles' mastery of subtlety is there in that moment, when we can see why these essentially decent men (with the exception of Gandil, who was just pushy and belligerent).  We see it when Sayles as Larder reads from a newspaper column denouncing him and Fullerton over 'fake news', the article saying better time would be spent investigating 'long-nose, thick-lipped gambling elements', a not-subtle anti-Semitic comment on the Jewish Rothstein. 

We see it in a bravura sequence, where we see the various figures involved in this story wander in and out of various rooms in a hotel hallway, some innocent, some guilty, and all working unwittingly against the other.  Only once does Sayles break from that tracking shot, to go into one of gambler's rooms, but the whole sequence spins wildly and brilliantly, letting us see where things are going in regards to the suspicions and the conspiracy.

Sayles also directs his cinematographer, Robert Richardson, to do something interesting at the end in the 1925 Hoboken game.  The scene has a light sepia to it that the rest of Eight Men Out doesn't, calling into it a sense of nostalgia

At the heart of the performances is Cusack as Weaver, an interesting choice given that 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson tends to be the best-known of the Eight Men Out.  He gives a brilliant performance: a man driven by desperation, first for money, then for his own sense of honesty and victory and genuine love of the game.  As the trial goes on, he meets two boys he's bonded with (one of whom idolizes Weaver so much he's been given the nickname 'Buck' in honor of his hero).  Cusack has a monologue about baseball, about what it is to him, means to him, and it just about breaks your heart.  Cusack went for soft over grand, and it worked.  Strathairn, who was also a major character, brings a forlorn tragedy as Cicotte, who in one instant both helped and damned his family.

Sweeney did a good job as the more naïve Jackson, who was bothered by the fact he had no real education and could not read or write (something fans pro-and-con knew).  Jackson, however, was not a major or central figure in Eight Men Out, so it's hard to judge exactly what he knew and/or when he knew it.

As a side note, I personally support lifting his ban and allowing for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame though I see why that has not happened.  However, should someone like a Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, or Alex Rodriguez be inducted, the BBWA will have no moral leverage to insist that Jackson or Rose be kept out but Bonds, Clemens and/or Rodriguez should be let in.  Yet I digress.

Sayles also did a great job in directing himself as Larder (his spoof of the song I'm Always Chasing Rainbows into I'm Always Blowing Ball Games to the White Sox a wicked mocking of what he knew but couldn't yet prove);, Terkel was a delight as the wily old sportswriter (though given Terkel was a writer, the role came naturally to him).

A surprisingly good performance came from Bill Irwin, whom I know as a song-and-dance man.  He handled both the drama and the athleticism well, the latter not surprising since he is a trained magician and acrobat, but the latter genuinely surprising given his long reputation as a clown.  It shows Irwin is an untapped talent.

Since we have many players, it would be impossible to give each of their stories equal time.  It's a movie, not a documentary.  This might explain why Jackson and Sheen's Felsch essentially disappear for long periods, and despite the importance of the line in the annals of sports and American history, when Shoeless Joe is approached and we hear, "Say it ain't so, Joe!  Say it ain't so," I didn't feel just how tragic that query was.

Little things, granted.  In something as wide as the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, it would be difficult if not impossible to cover everything.  Eight Men Out does as good a job as possible, and for those of us who love or have grown to love the sport of baseball, it isn't a story that leaves you angry.  It makes you almost want to cry.


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