Judge Jim Thomas had a lousy batting average in T-ball until he realized that nobody in T-ball expects you to bunt.
How do you want to be remembered?
Timing is everything. In the case of The Final Season, it was a matter of bad timing, as I watched it just a few days after catching Bull Durham on TBS. Watching a textbook example of how to do everything right in a baseball movie just served to highlight some of the miscues made during The Final Season.
Facts of the Case
The film is based on a true story. Norway, Iowa, has a population of just under six hundred. Their one claim to fame is their high school baseball team, which has rattled off a staggering nineteen consecutive state championships. Local support is so strong that the stands aren't just full for the games, they're full for the practices. That run is threatened, though, when the school board, against the wishes of the populace, votes to consolidate the Norway school system with a nearby system. In an attempt to mollify the town, the school board agrees to let Norway have one last season before being assimilated into the larger system—but the board has ulterior motives. Legendary coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe, Deadwood), is swept aside, replaced by Kent Stock (Sean Astin, who was in some trilogy about a guy with a jewelry fetish). Stock served as the assistant coach for the last half of the nineteenth championship; prior to that, he was a women's volleyball coach. The board president is confident that Stock will lead the team to defeat, and with the string of championships broken, the town will more readily accept the merger and move on. Initially, everyone from the team to the town is resigned to the final season being an exercise in futility. However, Stock learned well from Coach Van Scoyoc and, after a rocky start, he gets the players believing in themselves. Sure enough, when the dust settles, they're in the state championship game.
One of the most important things a writer has to develop is the ability to identify and remove excess material. That's a talent screenwriters Art D'Alessandro and James Grayford have yet to master. Way too much time is spent establishing the school board and its president as villains, for instance (Interestingly, in the commentary track, Astin, et al acknowledge that a lot of small-town school systems are faced with the sort of financial problems that led to the Norway-Madison merger). Even if the board behaved in exactly the manner shown on film, it isn't important enough to spend so much time on them, simply because the central conflict in the film is not the team versus the school board—by the time the season starts, the school board has already won that battle—but rather the team versus itself, overcoming everything against them in to ensure that Norway's last team will be its last champions. That's why the film's tag line is, "How do you want to be remembered?" In addition, there are enough subplots here for a complete miniseries; all of them get only token development. As a result, none of them can rise above the basic level of cliché. Even the romance between Stock and school board attorney Polly (Rachael Leigh Cook, Josie and the Pussycats) seems shoehorned in.
The use of the board president as a heavy creates some additional issues. Two people sympathetic with the team and Kent—the school janitor/team bus driver and Polly—know why Kent was hired. Yet there's no indication that they ever told him or anyone else. It's just one of too many loose ends.
Sean Astin (who also served as executive producer) is a likable enough actor, and he's carried movies (as well as hobbits) before. However, his portrayal of Kent Stock is somewhat flat (a "stock" character, if you will). Part of the problem is that he spends most of his initial scenes on screen with Powers Boothe, whose screen presence easily overpowers Astin's so that Stock fades into the background. Michael Argarno (Sky High) is saddled with perhaps the most clichéd of sub plots as troubled teen Mitch; his father (Tom Arnold, True Lies), who played for Scoyoc on one of the earlier championship teams, has left him in Norway with his grandparents. James Gammon (Major League), who plays the grandfather, rises above his material, making the most of his relatively few scenes. Mitch manages to redeem himself and his relationship with his father through baseball—just guess who comes to the plate in the last inning with two outs and the game on the line. Oh, yeah, he also gets the girl.
There's a ridiculous plotting error in the championship game. Norway is in the bottom of the final inning, trailing by a few runs. With two outs, the team manages to tie the score. Immediately after the tying run crosses the plate, the announcer goes "Wow, we're going to extra innings!" What? Norway never gets its third out, so they should still be at bat, with a chance to win the game in regulation. But going to extra innings raises the tension—at least, it would if there was a doubt as to who won a game played seventeen years ago—and thus the game is mystically flung into extra innings.
Video is pretty good. Filming in a rural area gives you a lot of opportunities for majestic, sweeping views, and the transfer handles them well. The 5.1 mix does well by Nathan Wang's effective (if borderline melodramatic) score. There are a lot of crowds and audiences, the ping of aluminum bats, and the sounds just wrap around you.
The disc has some pretty good extras. There's a three-chapter making of featurette that's pretty much the usual "this film was so amazing to film" stuff we hear on most other featurettes. There's one commentary track with Astin, director David Mickey Evans, executive producer Carl Borack, and producer Michael Wasserman. Group commentaries are almost always more fun than individual tracks, and this one is no exception. They offer a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, how they had to deal with the weather and the trains, and basically have a good time; it's always nice to hear filmmakers with a real passion for their work. The second track features producer Tony Wilson and real-life coaches Kent Stock and Jim Van Scoyoc. As you might imagine, this track is much more baseball-oriented, though I was a little surprised that they didn't talk more about what was changed in the film and what was accurate. The final extra, "The Real Season: The Spirit of Norway," sounds like it would focus more on the town and the actual participants of the events; it doesn't stray too far from the other featurettes. There's a little archive footage, but apart from a quick talk with the mayor of Norway, it's not appreciably different from the other extras. Why not bring together the actual team, or at least talk to some of them? There are several major-league players from Norway; why not talk to them? There are a lot of missed opportunities there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film boasts some stunning camerawork, particularly on the baseball diamond. Other faults aside, I can almost recommend the movie just on the basis of the cinematography. There's a wonderful shot at the very end—a slow tracking shot down a dark hallway, past the previous nineteen championship trophies, ending with Kent putting up the twentieth, with all the previous trophies stretching into the distance. The shot effectively emphasizes the accomplishments of the players of Norway over a score of years, while underscoring the sad truth that there will be no more trophies for this particular trophy case.
There's also one particularly nice bit of parallelism. After Norway has won the championship, one of the board of education members calls the board president to let him know of the victory. He comments, "This [ending the streak by forcing the merger] is what you'll be remembered for," which is a lovely bit of poetic justice. While the scene does give some payoff to the emphasis on the school board president as the chief villain, the time spent there could have been better used fleshing out the main characters.
I mentioned Bull Durham at the beginning, simply because I had just seen it. In reality, The Final Season is much closer in plot to Major League, and in tone with Hoosiers. Plot-wise, there isn't all that much about Major League or Hoosiers that is new—the movies work because they have strong characters with whom we can identify, and with whom we sympathize as we watch them struggle, suffer, and grow. The Final Season fields a team of cardboard cutouts. We don't identify with them, we don't sympathize with them, and we don't get invested in the pretty much predetermined outcome. The movie's enjoyable in a cotton candy sort of way, but it doesn't leave much of an impression. The filmmakers have clearly invested a lot of passion into the film, though.
A more cynical person would suggest that somehow Sean Astin was trying to capitalize on his Rudy street cred and craft a baseball version of Friday Night Lights, but that's not fair to Astin or the rest of the cast and crew. They clearly invest a great deal of passion in the movie, but somewhere along the way, whether in the writing or the editing, the drama just never quite gels.
The creative team for The Final Season fails to find a viable balance between historical accuracy and dramatic tension, and is hereby sent down to the minor leagues. Next batter, please.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director David Mickey Evans, Actor Sean Astin, Executive Producer Carl Borack, and Producer Michael Wasserman
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