Judge Ben Saylor vows to make it all the way through this review without using any baseball clichés.
The fix is in.
Professional baseball has had a shadow upon it of late with the release of the Mitchell Report, detailing the alleged steroid use of many well-known and admired players. For many, the scandal has cast a pall over these athletes and their achievements, and led some to question the integrity of "America's Pastime."
But scandal, unfortunately, is not new to baseball. Several decades ago, the "Black Sox" baseball scandal, in which it was revealed that several players had conspired to dump World Series games in exchange for money, was an event that shook the nation. It took the film industry nearly 70 years to dramatize the story, but the result, John Sayles' Eight Men Out, was worth the wait. The first DVD release of this film, however, probably had many fans thinking, "Say it ain't so, MGM." Well, fret no longer, as MGM has reissued Eight Men Out in a 20th anniversary special edition release.
Facts of the Case
The 1919 Chicago White Sox are a baseball powerhouse, boosted by great players such as outfielder "Shoeless Joe" Jackson (D.B. Sweeney, The Cutting Edge) and pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn, Fracture). But the team's owner, Charles Comiskey (Clifton James, Live and Let Die), is a miser who gives his players flat champagne as a "bonus" for winning the pennant. First baseman Arnold "Chick" Gandil (Michael Rooker, Mallrats) and teammate Charles "Swede" Risberg (Don Harvey, The Thin Red Line) decide to make a deal with contacts in the gambling business, promising to throw games in the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for cash. The pair get several other players, including Cicotte and pitcher Claude "Lefty" Williams (James Read, North and South), in on the fix, while other players, like third baseman George "Buck" Weaver (John Cusack, Martian Child), are aware of what's going on but refuse to participate.
The Sox lose the series, but sportswriter Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) smells a rat, and soon the "Black Sox" scandal makes national headlines, forever changing the sport of baseball, as well as the lives of the eight players implicated in the conspiracy.
At first glance, independent film stalwart John Sayles wouldn't seem like the best choice to direct Eight Men Out. Going into the late 1980s, Sayles' filmography consisted of low-key, low-budget independent dramas and comedies such as Lianna and The Brother From Another Planet. But if one takes into account the novel-like complexity of the characters and plots of his movies, Sayles seems like the ideal filmmaker to tackle a subject as complicated as the Black Sox scandal.
Sayles packs a lot into the one hour and 55-minute (sans credits) runtime of Eight Men Out, requiring an attentive viewer. The intricacies of the betting on the series are so convoluted they will have most viewers' heads spinning (your humble judge's included), although from what is said on the supplements, the people involved found it chaotic as well. Still, Sayles manages to effectively introduce the team, set up why they would want to throw the Series, and then allow for plenty of time to depict the Series and the subsequent trial of the players. Nothing feels rushed or, conversely, protracted; Sayles makes every minute count.
While other Sayles films certainly have more detailed character work (Matewan and Lone Star immediately come to mind), Eight Men Out is no slouch in this department either. There's Eddie Cicotte, whom Strathairn imbues with a great sense of conflict. Cicotte knows what he's doing is wrong, but he also feels that he isn't getting paid what he should and that he needs to support his family. Strathairn is an actor who exudes integrity and credibility, which goes a long way toward selling the torment of his character. There's third baseman Buck Weaver, who knows about the fix but doesn't want to rat out his teammates, hoping that they'll come around and play to win. While certainly nothing new in terms of characterization, the strength of Sayles' writing and Cusack's performance (he's terrific in what is essentially, as Sayles remarks on a supplement, his first adult role) elevate this character to a truly tragic figure, one you can't help but feel for. There's Shoeless Joe himself, whom Sayles depicts as a shy, somewhat naïve guy who has a genuine passion for baseball. D.B. Sweeney's sympathetic portrayal is a marvel of understatement, and is really one of the standouts in this large ensemble cast, which also includes Sayles regular Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue), Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd and Sayles himself (as sportswriter Ring Lardner), among others. Even the smaller characters, such as Sox Manager William "Kid" Gleason (John Mahoney, Dan in Real Life), are well drawn.
Despite the fact that Sayles works with veteran cinematographers such as Dick Pope and Haskell Wexler, I don't generally go into a John Sayles movie expecting bravura camerawork. Eight Men Out, however, boasts some outstanding visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson (a frequent d.p. for Martin Scorsese). Not only does the lighting perfectly convey the period atmosphere, but the camera moves a fair amount as well. One particularly impressive shot (discussed in detail in the special features) has Sweeney's Shoeless Joe hitting a triple, with the camera following the play from when Sweeney's bat connects until he is safe at third.
The afore-mentioned shot is testament not only to the camerawork of Eight Men Out, but also its baseball action. I've certainly never played baseball at anything coming within a million miles of a professional level, but the baseball in Eight Men Out sure looks good to me, and fluid editing from John Tintori makes sure that it's always easy to follow.
MGM's DVD of Eight Men Out is largely an impressive disc. For almost the entire film, the image is very nice to look at; the sky blues are especially pretty. However, during the film's 1925-set epilogue, the image quality changes, becoming more grainy and washed out. The change in colors seems to be a deliberate choice, as when this portion of the film is shown on the special features it looks the same. This may have looked good in theaters, but on DVD it doesn't look so hot. I traded in my older DVD of this film before reviewing the special edition, and thus could not compare the two. The sound quality, however, is great, making every crack of the bat and note of Mason Daring's jaunty, jazzy score loud and clear.
In terms of special features, what the Eight Men Out special edition lacks in quantity, it certainly makes up for in quality. First up is a feature commentary from Sayles. This track is a real treat, as Sayles keeps up a steady dialogue on every aspect of making the film, as well as offering valuable context on the time period and the scandal itself. While what Sayles says on the track sometimes overlaps with what he discusses in the retrospective, fans of the film will absolutely want to listen to this. Next is a two part retrospective documentary that, in total, runs about an hour. Sayles, Sweeney, Strathairn, Clapp, and others contribute fond remembrances of a film that was not the easiest to make (They had a low budget and tight shooting schedule) but one that all seem to consider to have been worth the effort. It's a shame that Cusack, Sheen, and a few of the other actors weren't brought on for this, but the participants MGM was able to secure (particularly Sweeney and of course, Sayles himself) are very interesting. Next up is a 35-minute featurette called "The Story Behind the Movie," in which Eliot Asinof, who wrote the book Sayles based his script on, and several others discuss the history of the scandal in detail. It's interesting to learn that there isn't that much hard fact known about the scandal, as many players from the 1919 team—even players who have never been considered to have been involved—refused to talk about it. In fact, some of those interviewed on the featurette say that it's impossible to definitively say which players were dumping games (with the exception of a few). Finally, there is a very short (about two-and-a-half minutes) featurette called "D.B., The Bat & The 2005 World Series," which is an interesting story about Sweeney and a special bat he donated to the 2005 White Sox.
When it comes to the films of John Sayles, Eight Men Out isn't quite on the level of Matewan, Lone Star, or Sunshine State, but it comes darn close. Eight Men Out is a movie that should please Sayles fans and baseball devotees alike, and MGM's special edition DVD should go a long way toward making fans of the film even happier.
The 1919 scandal may have put a black mark on baseball, but Eight Men Out:
20th Anniversary Edition won't leave a blemish on your DVD collection. Not
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Scales of Justice
• Feature commentary with screenwriter-director John Sayles
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