Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Review: ESPN's Catching Hell
I watched ESPN Films Catching Hell, which was billed as the story of Steve Bartman, the infamous foul ball and the aftermath. Some TV critics that I really respect, like Alan Sepinwall loved it. Our buddy Brent Axe called it terrific.
I wish I had the same reaction. I really wanted to love the documentary and I think it worked very well in parts, but I can't call it terrific. Making a movie about an event that lasted 7 seconds is tricky, and when main subject is someone who won't talk to you, it limits the amount of material a filmmaker has to work with. In my opinion, there was an hour of great material in the movie. Unfortunately, with commercials, it clocked in at two hours.
Catching Hell is a movie about the anguish of Cubs fans, yet it starts with a long introduction about how the incident is similar to the 1986 Boston Red Sox. We didn't get a single view of play that the whole documentary was about until 35 minutes in, and that's where I got frustrated.
The Bartman incident is a terrific subject -- made even more ripe for documentary storytelling by the fact that he has gone completely underground for the last 8 years. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Steve -- what happened to him in the weeks and months after the game ended? What kind of person is he? What was he like before the game? What has happened since? The film didn't answer those questions. Instead, we got a story about the parallels between Bill Buckner and his error in 1986.
The Buckner incident, the fan reaction, and the ultimate forgiveness Boston fans bestowed on Bill, and the forgiveness Bill found for the media, are great stories. However, they are stories that have been covered ad naseum. These events also have nothing to do with Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs or how Chicago Cubs history would have been altered if Moises Alou had caught a ball that drifted into the Wrigley seats that fateful night.
So why so much on Buckner? Because the director, Alex Gibney is from Boston and he's a Red Sox fan. The story he presented about Steve Bartman, the Cubs, and scapegoats in sports is more about how Red Sox fans relate to the subject matter. In fact, substantial portions of the movie feature Gibney talking to a Chicago radio host about himself. About how he feels as a Boston fan. Apparently there wasn't a filmmaker in Chicago available to make a movie about something that deeply affected the city of Chicago and tortured Cubs fans.
That's not to say the documentary was terrible, it wasn't. Once the subject matter moved from Fenway to Wrigley, we were treated to some very strong stuff. Gibney does a great job of incorporating footage from another filmmaker who was there that night, and he talked to almost everyone who was surrounding Bartman in Wrigley. He does an excellent job of recreating the play, isolating fans, and speaking with the security personnel that smuggled Steve Bartman to safety that night.
In a story about Steve Bartman, I wanted the director to work harder to tell me about the main subject. He didn't, or couldn't, and ultimately that weakened a strong movie. Catching Hell is at times a powerful film, however, it was a film could have used more Steve Bartman, a lot less Boston and a shorter running time.