HBO // 2001 // 129 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 7th, 2011
Why did American have room in its heart for only one hero?
"He's an MVP -- Most Vacant Personality."
The year is 1961, and the New York Yankees have two players with a legitimate shot at breaking Babe Ruth's longstanding home run record: hard-living superstar Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane, Hung) and low-key, soft-spoken Roger Maris (Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan). As the season progresses, the "M&M" duo remain hot on the trail of Ruth's record, but the majority of the media and the public choose Mantle as their hero. After all, Mantle is a New York icon, while Maris is just another player. Maris's dull, plainspoken personality doesn't do much to win him any favors with the media (they far prefer the flashier Mantle, who has fully embraced his role as a celebrity). The two sluggers form a deep personal bond over the course of the season, but the various pressures placed on them as they approach the record take a serious toll on their personal lives. Who, if anyone, will shatter the most significant record in baseball?
Well, even folks who don't know much about baseball know the answer to that question. Even if they didn't, director Billy Crystal quickly gets everyone up to speed by providing some info on Roger Maris's home run record during the opening scenes of 61*. And yet, Crystal still manages to wring an enormous amount of suspense and drama out of the journey there, simply because he so persuasively recreates what many sports fans regard as one of the most magical summers in baseball history.
Film critic David Thomson has suggested that 61* is the finest thing Crystal has produced either in front of or behind the camera (he remains offscreen this time around), and I can't really come up with a persuasive argument against that notion. Though the story is a familiar one and Crystal occasionally allows his sentimental tendencies to get the better of him, Crystal's intensely personal passion for this story oozes out of every frame. Mantle was Crystal's childhood hero, and the 1961 season in particular was one which captivated him immensely. Crystal works valiantly to ensure that the audience appreciates the weight and drama of every significant moment of the home run race; painstakingly recreating every bit of minutiae he can imagine in order to allow viewers to lose themselves in the moment.
There's no question that Crystal pours on the syrup pretty thick, but you can sense that it's coming straight from the heart rather than from a cheap desire to manipulate. In addition, he tempers this aspect of the film with both his playful comic instincts and a willingness to dig into the darker sides of this tale. Crystal may be mythologizing these men, but he's not interested in turning them into wax figures. There's a lot of playful dialogue between the two that brings an irreverent kick to the proceedings (Mantle insists on referring to Babe Ruth as, "the fat #%@!"). Crystal also digs into the death threats and negative public reaction Maris had to deal with during the season, and shows little mercy in his depiction of Mantle's self-destructive side.
One suspects the primary reason Crystal cast Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane is that the two actors are almost dead ringers for Maris and Mantle, respectively. Watching archival clips of the players in the special features, I was amazed to note how closely the actors recreated both the looks and the physical mannerisms of M&M. Jane has the flashier, more entertaining role, playing Mantle as a foul-mouthed charmer hellbent on preventing himself from reaching his full potential. Jane has a lot of fun with the part, and his comic timing is tremendous. Barry Pepper's role is considerably more difficult, as his job is to depict a man regarded by many as a dull, personality-free individual. Pepper subtly accentuates Maris' quiet dignity and simmering frustration; the bland persona is basically a mask of politeness. Pepper turns a character that could have been tedious into a soulful lead player. A handful of gifted character actors (Bruce McGill, Anthony Michael Hall, Seymour Cassel, Bob Gunton, Christopher McDonald, Richard Masur, Chris Bauer) fill out the cast, but this is the Jane n' Pepper show through and through.
61* steps up to the plate on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080p/1.78:1 transfer that does a nice job of preserving Crystal's warm, almost sepia-toned journey into the past (boasting gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Haskell Wexler). Detail is strong throughout; you can see every stitch on the team uniforms. Blacks are rich and inky, fleshtones are warm and natural and colors are vibrant. It looks good, just like it should. However, I will note that this Blu-ray release occasionally highlights the spotty nature of some of the CGI Crystal employs. Audio is strong as well, as Marc Shaiman's Americana score blends superbly with the nuanced sound design (the game sequences are exceptionally immersive) and the dialogue. However, volume control is an issue at times, as some of the dialogue scenes are too quiet in contrast to the louder baseball scenes. Supplements are ported over from the DVD release: a commentary with Crystal, a terrific 52-minute documentary called "The Greatest Summer of My Life: Billy Crystal and the Making of 61*" and some bios & stats on Maris and Mantle.
The one portion of the film that does absolutely nothing for me is the portrait of Maris' home life. These scenes do little to add to the story or give us a better idea of who Maris was, and they just seem superfluous as a result. While I realize this material is more or less a necessity, it could have been handled in a far more compelling way.
61* is a film that every baseball fan needs to see, but those who aren't fans of the sport will likely find it an absorbing drama nonetheless. HBO's Blu-ray release is handsome enough to merit an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (French)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated