Monday, September 2, 2013

25 Years Ago This Month: Eight Men Out Movie Review

John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, the story of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” scandal, is, on the one hand, an odd outlier compared to the rest of his work, and on the other, somewhat right in line with his plight of the working man sensibility. I’ve always been a great admirer of Sayles’ films. I especially enjoy the fact that he can make films illustrating the challenges of capitalism for laborers without being preachy or overtly socialist. He’s the more toned down American version of Ken Loach. In that respect, Eight Men Out fits right in because his version of the story, which is based on the book by Eliot Asinof, focuses more on the accused players as put-upon contracted laborers in thrall to a greedy owner who exploits their talents for financial gain. But amid his full body of work as writer and director it stands out as one of only two films he adapted from source material. So while he’s chosen to focus on the aspects that do appeal to him as a storyteller, the crux of the film is that it’s a historical sports movie, standing very much apart from his other work.

Sayles culled together an impressive pool of young talent to portray the famed eight disgraced ballplayers. Sayles regular David Strathairn is star pitcher Eddie Cicotte, depicted here as an honest man put into a dishonest position out of necessity to get what seems owed to him. Michael Rooker plays Chick Gandil, the guy whose connections to underworld figures allowed the gamblers entrance to make their proposal. He’s one of the two ballplayers depicted essentially as the heavies. The other is Don Harvey as Swede Risberg. Newcomer D.B. Sweeney brings a goofy aw-shucks performance to the role of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the most well-known of the eight. John Cusack and Charlie Sheen were at the height of the 80s popularity when they were cast as Buck Weaver and Happy Felsch, the latter of whom just wants to please those around him and the former the most honest, a man who knew about the fix, but asserts never to have taken a dime nor participated in throwing games (his batting average and lack of errors in the series support his claim).

There’s so much to tackle in the story that Sayles’ screenplay can’t possibly encompass all the details to the point needed to present a full understanding of what transpired. It’s fairly well accepted that back in those days, the players, who were not yet represented by a union, made very little money in comparison to what they were providing on the field in terms of entertainment and ticket sales. The owners were the fat cats and Clifton James as White Sox owner Charles Comiskey is shown to be ungracious, greedy, and callous. So you have the conflict between players and owner, which is itself the age-old battle between feudal lords and hired hands. But then you throw in the conflict on the field, which may have been even greater, between the uneducated players, mostly from the south, and the guys who’d been to college. They play great ball together, but there’s animosity directed from the likes of Risberg, Gandil, and Felsch toward players like Ray Schalk and Eddie Collins – guys who were either college educated or from the north.

As to the question of how the fix all came together and why, the questions are superficially answered, but good luck trying to figure it all out from a single viewing without footnotes and historical documents. If you don’t already know who the major and minor characters are, you might get lost. There are the gamblers played by Christopher Lloyd, Richard Edson, and Kevin Tighe. Arnold Rothstein is famously remembered as the man who arranged the fix, but here he’s just a man with the financial backing to get it done. Michael Lerner is one of several impressive actors in small roles in the film. Along with Lerner there’s also John Mahoney as the stolid Sox manager Kid Gleason, a man who suspects something, but trusts his boys to do the right thing. And then sort of inexplicably tossed into the mix are Studs Terkel and Sayles himself as journalists Hugh Fullerton and Ring Lardner. They are sort of omnipresent, always commenting on the proceedings like a Greek chorus whose job is to keep the uninitiated in the audience abreast of the subtleties of the plot. There remarks to one another are of a sarcastic nature and never fit well into the rhythm of the film. They feel tacked on and not anything at all like the tight writing Sayles normally commits to.

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