Eight Men Out
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.
The difference of opinion and my higher praise for the film probably begins with my general ignorance of the scandal, beyond what the players did and the kid who said "say it ain't so, Joe", (a moment which sounds like an embellishment but Sayles makes it believable and effective on screen.) So I enjoyed the many details Sayles packs into his savory script, not just the bullet points of what happened, but also some nice character moments, like a reporter who sings "I'm Forever Blowing Ballgames" to the team. (This reporter is played by Sayles himself in his most charismatic work in front of the camera.)
Where I solidly disagree with Corndog on cinematic terms is the way Sayles works with master cinematographer Robert Richardson to keep all the balls in the air. Richardson's camera prowls hotel corridors and bars, darting between conversations, constantly giving contrasting views on events as they happen. If you broke down the script, you'd probably find a couple of hundred scenes less than a page long. Sayles gets right to the meat and then moves on, which makes the pacing here pretty swift.
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.
The opening credits list almost two dozen names, and no character feels cheated of their point of view because of this "fly in the room" style. (Sayles next feature was City of Hope, also shot by Richardson and using a same style to bring an entire city to life. It remains Sayles' masterwork.)
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.
I'll admit I was influenced by this remark to mentally note the great performances and scenes, like when the bi-plane drops a dummy onto the field or John Cusack reacting against being lumped in with the guilty party. (I'm not a fan of Cusack who is often too detached in his acting. This is some of his best work.) What about the way some of the characters see taking the money as the smart thing to do, how it gives them a joy they weren't getting from the game because of the way the Owner has been treating them. Michael Lerner as gambling wizard Arnold Rothstein - not even a player - gives the best explanation when he says this is revenge for all the times he wasn't picked for a sports team because he was too fat. I generally don't like to point out too many moments and scenes in a film, but there's so many other examples for the viewer to discover, I haven't spoiled it all.
Great scenes, great characters, great story, great script, great filmmaking. Sorry, Corndog. This is better than you think.* * * 1/2