Let me tell you why The Blog loves this week’s guest reviewer. First of all, he comes from one of our favorite institutions of higher learning, Eastern Illinois University. He’s a die-hard Cubs fan, which we think is wayyyyy existential. His nickname is “Quatro.” Why? Because when he came on board at The Times of Northwest Indiana, he was the fourth “Matt” on the design desk — hence, “Quatro.” Because he’s about 6-foot-a-million, he also may be called “Quatro The Tall,” “Shorty” and our personal favorite, “Matt Mein-Height-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Height.”
But we really love him this week because when we woke up today after a long weekend standing up in a wedding and realizing we had nothing for Movie Monday, we logged into the ol’ e-mail account to find … a very timely review from Matt Meinheit on the baseball movie “61*.” Central to the movie is the pool of newspaper reporters following Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’ 1961 home run chase. So Meinheit saved the day with a movie featuring journalists as a major plot device — and he did it just in time for baseball’s All-Star Game.
Listen, peeps. We need your help. We know you’ve got a favorite newspaper or journalism movie you’d like to tell everyone about. So send us an e-mail and become our next critic!
Director: Billy Crystal. Stars: Thomas Jane, Barry Pepper, Anthony Michael Hall, Richard Masur, Bruce McGill and Chris Bauer.
Awards Circuit: Two wins at the 2001 Emmys (Outstanding Casting and Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or Special) and 10 other Emmy nominations. Pepper was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and the movie also was nominated for Best Sports Movie at ESPN’s Espy Awards (it lost to “The Rookie”).
Plot synopsis: In the summer of 1961, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle are chasing a record everyone said could not be broken (fellow Yankee Babe Ruth’s single-season home run mark) while contending with fickle fans and a press corps out to preserve the Babe’s legacy.
Best one-liner: Mickey says to Roger, “Are we fuedin’?,” to which Roger replies, “Yeah, I guess so. It’s on TV.”
Geek Factor: Journalists should enjoy the trio of New York columnists (Milt Kahn, Arty Green and Sam Simon) providing most of the conflict in the film. Even though most of his colleagues in the flick are poster boys for pack journalism, Kahn is the good guy amongst the film’s antagonists.
Matt’s Review: Few people get to meet their childhood idols, let alone make a film about them. In this passion project, director/producer Billy Crystal fulfills a personal fantasy most of us couldn’t even imagine.
In “61*,” Crystal tells the story of his hero, the late, great Mickey Mantle. But this is not Mantle’s story — he’s a supporting role to Roger Maris. While Crystal indulges his idol worship for Mantle in the first two acts, he gets the film were it needs to be by the closing credits.
Casting can make or break historical films like this, but Crystal and his crew made some wise decisions starting with Thomas Jane as Mantle and Barry Pepper as Maris. While Pepper bears a remarkable resemblance to Maris, Jane brings the attitude and swagger of baseball legend Mantle. Jane, like Mantle, brings the star power to a talented supporting cast that includes Anthony Michael Hall (Whitey Ford), Richard Masur (Kahn), Bruce McGill (Ralph Houk), Christopher McDonald (Mel Allen), Bob Gunton (Dan Topping), Donald Moffat (Ford Frick) and Seymour Cassel (Simon), to name just a few.
The film is well paced and full of witty banter baseball fans are sure to enjoy. While Jane gets the best lines, Pepper gives a strong performance as a guy trying to be everything to everyone — and usually failing.
Crystal gets some extra mileage out of the columnists with their debate over the separate season records created by Major League Baseball commissioner Frick in 1961, hence the asterisk in the title. But he forces a bookend time warp tying the film to Mark McGwire’s 70-home run season in 1998, making for some awkward cuts and dating the film (originally aired on HBO in 2001).
Despite a few historical inaccuracies, Crystal successfully tackles the private lives of these players during the course of the season. The third act dives into the demons Maris faced down the stretch run and, ultimately, the relief when he finally gets No. 61.
A lot of good baseball flicks have the ability to tug at the heart strings. Crystal might be yanking a little hard on those strings, especially with a montage late in the film. But in the end, you don’t mind.
If you’re a fan of baseball, this movie will probably find a way into your collection, but it isn’t going to stand above the other dramas out there and is likely going to strike out with most novices to the game.