Sports movies are never easy to do and making one that reaches beyond the bounds of sports fans is especially challenging. While `Eight Men Out' may not quite grab the non-sports enthusiast as well as `Field of Dreams,' `Hoosiers' or `A League of Their Own,' (my own nominations for the three best sports-related movies of all-time), it DOES more than hold its own among the top third of the ever-growing list of baseball movies.
This is largely because it is not really a BASEBALL movie. Like the aforementioned films, it is a movie about people who happen to PLAY baseball. Based on the Eliot Asinof novel, the movie is, by and large, historically accurate. It also seems to be fairly even-handed in dishing out guilt. Yes, the players played for skinflint Charles `Old Roman' Comiskey, yes they were easy prey for the gambling element, yes they were lacking in education and common sense yet they are not portrayed as innocent victims, either.
I have been a huge David Strathairn fan ever since `Eight Men Out.' His sensitive portrayal of star pitcher Eddie Cicotte was pivotal to the movie's success. Asinof correctly focused on Cicotte as the pivotal figure in the World Series fix. `Eddie's the key!' more than one character exclaimed. Other players, approached with the idea of throwing the series, reacted with shock when finding out the highly-respected Cicotte was involved. This was certainly no easy choice for Cicotte, a man of some integrity and conscience, but a pitcher nearing the end of his salad days and a man bitter at his mistreatment by Comiskey. Strathairn plays the intelligent, stressed character under the gun as well as any actor of his generation.
The rest of the cast is fine, too, with despicable Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) and Swede Risberg (Don Harvey) playing the odds and pressuring teammates to go along. James Read is excellent as henpecked southern pitcher Claude `Lefty' Williams, probably the second most respected player on the team. Of course Buck Weaver (John Cusack) is a huge figure, considering the gamblers' pitch, then opting to pass when the money isn't immediately forthcoming.
The movie isn't shy about its version of good guys & bad guys. Gandil, Risberg & Swede's buddy Fred McMullin (Perry Lang) are the villains, while Williams, Weaver, Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) and Manager Kid Gleason (John Mahoney) are victims. Hall of Famer Eddie Collins (Bill Irwin) and no-nonsense catcher (and controversial Hall of Famer) Ray Schalk (Gordon Clapp) are frustrated on-lookers, while Dickie Kerr (Jace Alexander) is the wide-eyed & naïve rookie. All turn in fine work and I find myself loving the taciturn Schalk, the kind of catcher every manager wants. Most interesting is the movie's portrayal of Shoeless Joe, who is interpreted as being mildly retarded, rather than just illiterate.
The baseball scenes are quite realistic, as are the ballpark backdrops. I first saw it the year after visiting Old Comiskey Park (the year before it was torn down) and felt right at home on the movie set even the turnstiles looked authentic.
In closing, I can't honestly say that someone with NO knowledge or interest in baseball would flip over this film. Yet, one doesn't have to be a bleacher bum to enjoy it and not knowing the outcome may actually make it MORE fun for the neophyte! Overall, a fine movie.