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Henry Wiggen (Author to his friends) and Bruce Pearson are members of the New York Mammoths major league baseball team - Author the star pitcher, Bruce the catcher who never quite lived up to his potential - friends, and roommates when they're on the road. During the off season, Bruce is diagnosed with a terminal case of Hodgkin's disease. Author is the only person on the team who knows of Bruce's illness, with neither planning on telling anyone. Author takes extraordinary measures to ensure that he is playing ball with Bruce during what will probably be Bruce's final season before he can no longer play. Author looks after Bruce in part because Bruce is mentally a simple man who can easily be taken advantage of, especially by his opportunistic girlfriend Katie. As the season progresses, the team isn't quite gelling, despite being the best team on paper. But as information comes to light, the dynamic on the team changes to make it a memorable end of the season especially for Bruce, who...Written by
"Bang the Drum Slowly" is among the best baseball movies. For my money, it might be the very best. Its story is simple - Henry Wiggen, the intelligent and savvy ace pitcher of the New York Mammoths, learns that his best friend on the team, simpleminded, kindhearted catcher Bruce Pearson, has terminal cancer and a year to live. A baseball season to live.
This is a story about friendship and about being a decent human being. It's about how, as Bruce laments, there's just no sense to his death. The movie is built around a baseball season, and it's certainly a baseball movie, but it's a rare sports movie where the human drama isn't clichéd and predictable but actually makes the film. The baseball elements are well-done, to be sure, the teammate's show a realistic mix of cockiness and genuine concern for a teammate, and the plot involving the manager's spirited investigation of Bruce's off-season activities, not yet knowing he was at a cancer hospital, is funny and realistic at the same time. However, the reason to watch this is the simple but powerful human drama - the baseball season can't help but take a back seat to that.
Aside from the stellar story, this movie is memorable for the acting. Of course, Robert Deniro gives an excellent performance in a role that's quite different than what he'd become known for. But Deniro as the kindhearted, simpleminded Pearson really shows off his range. As overlooked as the film itself is Michael Moriarty's top-shelf performance as Wiggen. While Moriarty evidently has less range (he plays Wiggen much as he would play Ben Stone in Law & Order two decades later, right down to calling everyone "sir") Moriarty's intelligent, noble and soul-searching demeanor is naturally perfect for the role. And I can't forget to mention Vincent Gardenia as manager Dutch Schnell. Playing any other character, Gardenia's work here would have been absurd, but his zany acting is totally appropriate for a famous baseball manager, a line of work where flamboyant, over-the-top behavior is essentially a job requirement, regardless of what era of baseball you're talking about.
While I don't know if we could ever definitively determine a "best" baseball movie, because a lot of it comes down to personal taste. But for me, "Bang the Drum Slowly" is everything I want in a baseball movie. I think any fan of the game owes it to themselves to check this film out if they have the chance.
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