(2016) Sports Documentary (Gravitas Ventures) Kevin Costner (narration), Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Derek Jeter, Denard Spain, Mike Schmidt, Justin Verlander, Rich Gossage, Eddie Murray, George Brett, Bryan Price, Aroldis Chapman, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Steve Dalkowsky, Joe Posnansky, David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Bench. Directed by Jonathan Hock
The game of baseball speaks to the American soul in ways that football and basketball can’t. It is a means of reaching back to our past, to simpler times and embracing who we once were as a people. While some of those things are ugly – the racism and segregation of the early era, the influence of gamblers and performance enhancing drugs and the erosion of the game as football became America’s Sport – the game endures in the hearts of many Americans as the symbol of all that is good about this country.
One of the enduring arguments in baseball concerns the most common and lethal pitch – the fastball. To wit, who throws the fastest? It’s a little easier these days with modern technology to answer that question, but where does that put the iconic power pitchers of earlier days? Guys like Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson and Bob Feller? Attempts were made to measure the latter two, most notably in Feller’s case when his fastball was measured against a motorcycle going full speed.
This documentary, made under the auspices of Major League Baseball and narrated by Costner, whose association with the sport is as close as any actor’s in history, looks at the fastball, including its impact on the sport, its place in our imagination and the cultural significance of the act of throwing one.
There is a talking head factor here, but most of them are former major leaguers, talking about the nastiest fastball they faced or about their own experiences throwing it. There are segments on Johnson, Feller and Koufax along with Nolan Ryan, Goose Gossage and Steve Dalkowsky, the minor league player whom the character “Nuke” LaLoosh from Bull Durham was based on. He had a major league fastball, but his control was terrifying. He might have made the major leagues though one season but for a heartbreaking injury.
The stories are the major thing here, and nobody is as entertaining a storyteller as a ballplayer. One of the things that gets this movie over is the combination of the technical aspect of baseball, showing how the speed of the fastball is measured (which I was surprised to discover isn’t the speed when it’s hitting the plate but about ten feet from the pitcher’s mound) as well as what appeals more to the emotional side of the sports fan as well as to the tech geek.
There is plenty of archival footage and a great sense of the mythic quality of baseball and I think that’s what mainly captivated me about the documentary. Nothing taps into the American soul better than baseball and if you are not from this country, if you’re going to understand Americans you first need to understand the game of baseball. Watching this masterpiece of Americana will almost certainly give you an insight into the American psyche, although non-fans of the game might not get some of the reference points. However, you don’t have to be a fan of the game to admire the sight of a thrown baseball exploding past a policeman going nearly 100 MPH on a motorcycle.
REASONS TO GO: Effectively combines technology and mythology. Captures the mythic quality of the game. Some very entertaining stories.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to non-fans.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chapman currently holds the record for the fastest pitch thrown in a Major League Baseball regular season game; 105.1 MPH on September 25, 2010 in San Diego when he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, iTunes, Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knuckleball
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Embrace of the Serpent