Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Catching Hell

Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman was vilified for trying catch a foul ball. Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner was hounded by Boston fans for booting a routine ground ball. Same sport, same little white ball, but the contexts were very different. Unfortunately, they both contributed to heartbreaking post-season losses for their legendarily unlucky franchises. In a documentary refreshingly free of ideology, Alex Gibney examines the scapegoating phenomenon in ESPN Film’s Catching Hell, the Gala selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

After years of endearing futility, the Chicago Cubs fielded a contending team in 2003. Everything seemed to be coming together for a magical season, until game six of the National League Championship Series. With the Cubs leading the Florida Marlins 3-0, Moises Alou (not a great fielder, as Mets fans can attest) thought he had a play on a tailing foul ball, but it was deflected by the fan sitting in seat 113. Slightly disappointed, Alou threw a minor fit on the field. From that point forward, Steve Bartman’s life became a media maelstrom.

As Gibney astutely points out, fans give the players a complete pass for the wild pitch and costly fielding error that followed, turning on one of their own instead. What follows was an example of the madness of crowds that threatened to get dangerously ugly. If anyone comes out looking good in Hell it is the Wrigley Field security staff who acted swiftly and decisively to protect the poor nebbish fan. Indeed, Gibney captures the fever pitch of the game and the immediate aftermath quite vividly, even including a sound bite from not yet disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich that only fanned the flames. (He neglects to mention Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered Bartman sanctuary, which the suburban Chicago resident did not avail himself of.)

While Hell’s wider examination of scapegoating is somewhat underwhelming, Buckner adds some hard-won insight into the phenomenon. A good-to-great player whose career will be forever defined in the sports media by a fluke error, Buckner could empathize with Bartman. However, Gibney also captures a nicely redemptive moment, when Buckner finally returns to Boston’s Fenway Park, receiving a genuinely warm welcome from the fans. Of course, as Gibney points out, the Bosox fans had enjoyed two World Series victories in the half decade before making their peace with Buckner. Nothing heals old wounds like a couple of rings.

Unlike his previous two films (Client 9 and his chapter of Freakonomics) Gibney has made a well sourced, rigorously logical documentary. He also refrains from any extraneous political references, sticking to sports. Unfortunately, he was not able to score an on-camera sit-down with Bartman, who now scrupulously guards his privacy. Yet, Hell is not undermined by his absence. Rather, there is something poignant about a life forced into seclusion by foul ball hit at an overgrown kids’ game.

Conceived as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series, Hell is another sports film with crossover appeal beyond sports fans. Regardless of Gibney’s reputation for politicized fare, it is a fitting selection for Tribeca’s ESPN Sport Film Festival track. Entertaining but also a more than a bit sad, Hell screens again this Saturday (4/30) at the Tribeca Cinemas.