HBO // 1991 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // June 16th, 2011
Featuring authentic footage of baseball's greatest years.
Actually, it's all authentic footage -- and it's pretty awesome. HBO's three-part meditation on America's pastime is not your typical documentary. There are no interviews, promotional snippets, or dramatic reenactments. This is simply 180 minutes of compelling, real-life footage of some of baseball's greatest players. Set against this video is a selection of readings, reflections and narrations from a variety of speakers: broadcasters, writers, players and celebrities.
While the voiceover has its moments, as most of it is emotional, delivered by people who obviously have an abiding love of the sport, the ticket-seller here is the footage. It's all either 8MM or 16MM film, shot between 1934 and 1957 and displayed in the original color (no synthetic colorization here). What makes the presentation feel so organic, however, is the nature of the film: it's all home video footage, candid stuff that gets into the dugouts, on the practice fields and behind the batter's box.
These amateur photographers did a great service to baseball by pointing their camera lenses on some of the greatest to ever play the game: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Willie Mays. That's a sterling lineup and you'll get to see these guys in candid moments.
So then how to classify When It Was a Game? Again, not your classic documentary, but as a window into the magic of some of baseball's greatest eras, it's unrivaled. Paired with the heartfelt narration, I'm thinking that this production is more a meditation on the game, a largely visual, transporting experience that is supplemented by breezy hardball ruminations.
Whatever genre it fits or doesn't fit into, any baseball fan would be foolish not to consider adding this to the library. No matter how many documentaries or specials you may have seen, When It Was a Game boasts footage you won't find anywhere else. Great stuff.
HBO's Blu-ray applies a nice 1.78:1, 1080p coat of paint to the visuals. Don't expect razor's edge fidelity because, obviously, the original film prints are limited, but the color is strong and the resolution is solid enough to enhance the luster of the footage. A pair of 2.0 tracks (DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS Digital Spanish) have little to do but push out dialogue from the center channel. The less said about the canned soundtrack, the better. No extras, which is disappointing.
Not Guilty. Play ball!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated