Gabe (4): Welcome to the VEB Movie Club. It’s admittedly a bit of an odd time to bring this feature back, one designed during the pandemic when it wasn’t clear when baseball would return. Appropriately, the idea of bringing him back was also conceived when it was unclear when baseball would return. But even before anyone agreed to watch a movie, the season had a start date. But at the same time, it’s also the best time to watch a baseball movie, so why give up on that idea? The week before opening? Plunges you into baseball fever.
Heather, none of us have seen Bang the Drum Slowly, but you read the book a few years ago. I haven’t read the book. I can honestly say that I rarely go to a movie this blind. I have no idea what it is, other than it being a baseball movie. I have this vague notion that someone dies in the movie, but I might just confuse it with another sports movie around the same time that I haven’t seen, Brian’s Song (which, yes, readers I know , is a soccer movie). I guess you liked the book enough to want to see the movie, hence why this is the selection.
Heather (lil): Since you mentioned you were going into this movie pretty much blind, I won’t spoil anything for you. I will say that I unfortunately have a terrific memory and know everything that is going to happen from reading the book (if anyone is interested in reading my breakdown, you can find it here). What I will tell you is that the book is considered one of the best sports books of all time and is the second in a series of four books in this universe written by author Mark Harris. Charles Poore of New York Times wrote of it “Bang the Drum Slowly is the best baseball novel that has appeared since we all started comparing baseball novels”. Harris is also credited with writing the screenplay – he’s the only credited writer I could find for the film. That doesn’t necessarily mean a product as good as the book, but I have high hopes.
I did find, however, that Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote “This is one of those rare cases where a close adaptation of a good book resulted in a possibly even better film”, in his review of the film, so I feel like my instinct might be proven correct.
* We are both watching the 98 minute film. Heather finishes first, I finish shortly after
Lil: I guess first of all I have to say that I really liked this movie. For what it was – a story from last summer of a dying man – it wasn’t too sentimental (honestly, I found it quite funny). In fact, for much of the movie, only a few people knew the truth about Bruce Pearson’s condition. I think that was kind of the point. There was a line that I liked that talked about that. Bruce says “Everyone would be nice to you if they knew you were dying”, to which Arthur (in the book, I believe his nickname is actually “Author” because he wrote a book, but the movie’s subtitles and my ears both think they said ‘Arthur’ in the movie) responds “Everyone knows everyone’s dying; that’s why people are as good as they are. I can’t say if that was meant to be sarcasm and a comment on how maybe we should be nicer to each other, but that was my initial read, especially in the context of the movie where once the team starts being nicer to each other, they play better. I think it’s a lovely message, but surprisingly soft and delicate for a “sports movie”, and it works perfectly with the film’s theme where, to be successful in their sport, men must learn to be softer and more nice to each other
I was also surprised at how well it held up. There were a few moments that dated the movie that don’t hold up to a modern view, but I think overall that message holds true today. I couldn’t help but think of modern parallels for different situations the characters found themselves in.
The last thing I really have in my notes is how surprised I was by Robert de Niro’s portrayal of Bruce Pearson. It’s not the kind of role I think of him for, but I felt like he really transformed in it. I thought I was only going to be able to see Niro, but I forgot it was even him.
4: I didn’t even know that Deniro was in this movie! That’s the little info I had. It’s the Deniro era of Mean Streets! Older Deniro and Younger Deniro might as well be two different actors. It’s not a huge physical transformation, but it’s just a lot more physical in its performance and has great charisma while making it look effortless. I was a fan of his performance if you couldn’t tell. And it’s one of his “easiest” roles so to speak, at least at this point in his career.
I found it to be a fascinating look at pre-free agency baseball. Obviously, that’s not what the movie is about, but a lot of the background stuff rings really true. The star pitcher is waiting for more money. It was much more common before free will became a thing, because it was the only tool they had. And he ended up using it as a ruse to get Bruce on the team with him, but I suspect that if Bruce never had that diagnosis, he’d still be trying to hold out for more money. The stud’s perspective is kept grounded while it’s at least implied that he’s ready now. This still happens now of course. Is that what you mean by modern parallels?
Lil: It was exactly what I thought. I couldn’t help but think about the lockout when the veteran player walks up Wiggen while watching spring training and advises him not to watch while he holds because they’ll see that he will want to play and use it against him.
4: The baseball scenes were… not the most compelling. For starters, whenever a cast member was close enough to be seen, the action was obviously taking place at a spring training facility during the regular season with a very obvious fake crowd noise. I thought Moriarty had a pretty convincing pitching motion. And Deniro, for God’s sake, was he 1.75m and 100 pounds in this movie? He is so skinny. He seems to have precisely zero muscle. This guy couldn’t be a catcher in 1973 or now really. Imagine him trying to block the plate back in the days when people like Pete Rose were trying to destroy you. I legitimately can’t believe how small he looks
Lil: In the movie, he says he’s 1m75 or something like that! I didn’t mind that he looked skinny because he was supposed to be sick, but I also noticed how his uniforms seemed to be dripping on him. I actually thought during the movie the baseball scenes didn’t look too bad – at one point I wondered if they used real game clips – but that was during the editing of baseball plays that showed they were playing better, not the end ups.
For a baseball movie that appears to contain a lot of baseball, there’s actually very little baseball played, if that makes sense.
4:Honestly, it was mostly the distraction to notice that they were obviously playing at a spring training complex which affected the realism more than the actual game – that they cleverly seemed to use real clips of real baseball players whenever they could. And the game in the last game is the best “baseball” of the players. But yeah, I just noticed the very distinct spring training context and once I noticed that it became clear when the actors were used and when it was a snippet from an actual game. But that’s a problem for me, and it didn’t affect the quality of the movie for me.
According to Wikipedia, they used both Shea and Yankee Stadium as filming locations, but I’m guessing they weren’t allowed to play on the field. Admittedly, it’s not a real team either (although it definitely looks like the Yankees), but you never see the actual crowd when they shoot at the spring training venue.
Two more baseball related notes: hearing a .260, .270 average described as not great is funny, and maybe a modern viewer will take that at face value for how much the average has changed, but that would be in fantastic for a catcher in 1973 when the average for each position was .257. It’s funny how perceptions work. And it was a bit strange to see Deniro’s father hanging around in the dugout towards the end.
Lil: I thought the same thing when I heard that! If Yadi hit .270, that would be amazing. The scene near the end when Bruce gets on the plane is another one that caught my attention that this movie is set in the 70s.
Overall, I really liked the movie. I thought that did the book justice. I felt like the acting was really good. And I felt it told a compelling story without being clunky or overly dramatic. I also thought it was really funny. I didn’t expect it to be that funny, but there were several times when I burst out laughing.
4: I am okay. I was quite impressed with the team interactions which seemed pretty accurate (a cleaned up version anyway). It’s not my favorite baseball movie, but it’s up there. I’ll end with an apt quote from Roger Ebert in his 4-star review: “And then, as the shape of the film begins to show, we realize it’s not so much a sports film as a film about those subjects elusive, male ties and working in America. That men play baseball and sport is their job is what makes this the ultimate baseball movie; never before has a movie considered the game of baseball. inside.