Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, July 12, 2014

In Pursuit Of The Perfect Game

Some links before I get started today. Norma had a photoblog up yesterday at her page. Shelly is keeping an eye on events overseas.  Yesterday was a Square Dog Friday at Parsnip's blog. Eve had writer's block advice at her page. And the Happy Whisk asked who eats pot pies. Today I have another movie review...

"You're perfect. You and the ball and the diamond, you're this perfectly beautiful thing. You can win or lose the game all by yourself. You don't need me." ~ Jane Aubrey

"Sam Tuttle. I can't think of a better reason not to be a Yankee." ~ Billy Chapel

"Let's get outta here before we get our asses kicked twice in one night." ~ Frank Perry

"We're the best team in baseball right now, right this minute, because of you. You're the reason. We're not gonna screw that up, we're gonna be awesome for you right now. Just throw." ~ Gus Sinski

"Think, Billy... don't just throw. Think." ~ Billy Chapel

For Love Of The Game is a 1999 adaptation by director Sam Raimi, from the novel by the late writer Michael Shaara (The Killer Angels). It tells the story of an aging pitcher at the end of a bad season, trying to figure out where his life is going as he pitches one more game. Starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston, the film goes back and forth in time and explores the characters and the essence of baseball from the major league point of view, working both as a sports film and an intensely personal character study. It's the third in Costner's baseball trilogy after Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. 

The film opens with the Detroit Tigers coming into New York for the final game of the season against the Yankees. It's been a bad season for the team, and the heart and soul of the Tigers is their legendary pitcher Billy Chapel (Costner). He's not quite the player he was though; he's forty, and his arm is aching, something noted by his friend, catcher Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly), who Billy complains is the ugliest wife in the league.

Billy has distractions on his mind. He's had an on and off again relationship with a woman in New York, Jane Aubrey (Preston), a magazine columnist who tells him that she's accepting a job in London, bidding him goodbye. And the owner of the team Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) breaks the news that he's sold the team to a corporate group who have decided to trade the star pitcher. Wheeler suggests Billy retire instead, that it would serve the incoming owners right. The team takes to the field in Yankee Stadium, one of the most hostile places in the world for a visiting team, and Billy starts pitching, all the while reflecting on his relationship with Jane, meeting her daughter Heather (Jena Malone), and the events that have driven them apart. As the game progresses (called by real life announcers Vin Scully and Steve Lyons), Billy struggles with decisions, thinks about the past... and realizes at last that he's pitching a perfect game.

The screenplay by Dana Stevenson adapts the book by Shaara, found among the author's works after his death. It blends the personal relationship aspect and the world of the major league game. While the moving back and forth in time aspect might seem confusing, much of the flashbacks are left to when Billy is in the dugout. On the mound, he's all business. The story fleshes out the characters both in how we see them in action, and particularly for Billy and Jane in the flashbacks. It also really gets us in the mind of a pitcher, something that Raimi picks up on in his work as a director. Chapel tends to talk to himself on the pitcher's mound, judging the man at bat, deciding how to handle each in turn. He has a personal mantra to shut out the sound of the crowd, and Raimi plays on that several times in completely numbing that sound. And he relates to players in different ways. To his team he's the leader. To opposing players, there's sometimes respect, and sometimes animosity- no more so clearly than with the Yankee Sam Tuttle, a hot head who turns everything into an argument.

Raimi filmed the baseball scenes in Yankee Stadium between seasons, using extras to fill sections of the stands where needed, and employing baseball players to fill out some of the roster on both teams. In Costner he had an actor who played the game in school days, and it shows in Costner's body language- he looks at home on the mound, as though he belongs, and he's the one throwing the pitches; we're not looking at a stunt double. Raimi gets us into the game through his camera work, sometimes filming in a way as if the audience is an unseen presence on the field, other times giving us the television perspective complete with announcers. The overall effect is one of authenticity- it feels like a game playing out, and interspersed with the flashbacks, it makes for a most unusual game. And in going into the stands from time to time, Raimi shows us an audience of die-hard Yankee fans slowly shifting from jeers and hostility into realizing they're watching history in the making- and actually rooting for someone from the other team. It's a completely different kind of movie for Raimi, better known for horror like Army Of Darkness and The Evil Dead, or his Spider-Man trilogy. The score by the late Basil Poledouris is one of my favourites of his work, drawing us right in. It's romantic, heroic, and noble at times, and such a contrast from much of his other work, including The Hunt For Red October, Conan The Barbarian, and Les Miserables (the non-musical version). Give a listen to this sample of his score.

The cast is ideal for their roles. Brian Cox is one of those character actors who can be interesting in whatever he does, sometimes as a villain and other times not. Here he's sympathetic as a team owner irritated by the way his favourite player is being screwed over by the incoming owners. He tells Billy that watching him play the game has been one of the great joys in his life. This in short is not the kind of owner we'd see in a George Steinbrenner (who's probably rolling over in his grave right about now). J.K. Simmons turns up as the coach of the Tigers, Frank Perry. Simmons is another one of those character actors you've seen a hundred times, a motormouth who you can't help but like. Raimi would later cast him as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man trilogy, but here he's more sympathetic, a dedicated and driven coach. Though his team has had a bad year, he's determined not to just roll over for the Yankees and have them clinch the pennant without a fight. Bill E. Rogers is also of note here; he plays Davis Birch, a friend of Billy who got traded to the Yankees. The two have stayed friends, meet on the diamond twice in the film, and we see the mutual respect between the two, the understanding that this might well be the last time they see each other as players in the game. Rogers conveys that respect in the final inning, torn between wanting his team to win and wanting to see his friend pull off a rare achievement. 

Jena Malone plays Heather Aubrey mostly in flashback, though late in the film we see her watching the game. She plays the part over a number of years, and still comes across as both a teenager and young college student. When we first meet her she's wise beyond her years, brought up by a single mother, with an absent father who doesn't care what she does. While she comes across initially as a teen with teen responses to arguments, there's depth there and maturity, and both the audience and Billy can see that. In her performance, she relates to Kelly Preston very much in a believable daughter and mother way. 

Reilly has the look of a baseball catcher, somewhat stocky and pugnacious, and also looks like he belongs right at home behind home plate, waiting for the ball to hit his glove. His Gus has a lot of history with Billy- they're pretty much partners on the field, both knowing what the other will do next. With reason he worries about Billy's condition, but the friendship between the two is well established, and they trust each other. That's a hallmark of Reilly's performance, well fleshed out and feeling authentic.

The two leads fit their roles well. Kelly Preston plays Jane as a woman who's succeeded in her field despite struggles and troubles. Through her own hard work she's made something of herself, all while raising her daughter from an early age. She's not perfect- there are times her self esteem and sense of emotional guard get in the way of her happiness, as if she doesn't believe she can be happy, that she can't believe in love. Her daughter sees that, understands that her mother withdraws into herself. Preston plays into that, but also brings a sense of humour and infectious warmth into the role.

Costner was the perfect fit for the role. He wasn't much older than the character when he made the film, and still in the right form to be out on the mound. He plays Billy in different ways. He can be careless at times with his personal life, even withdrawing and pushing Jane away when an injury intervenes into his life. But there's also charm and a playfulness that features heavily into his relationship with Jane. They're believable as a couple, and that comes from both performances. On the field, the character feels true to life too, getting weary as the game goes on, even having doubts as to whether or not he can go on. Yet he's also a leader, surrounded by a team that's playing hard for him, something on display in the final two innings. 

We really get into Billy's head as things go along, and Costner conveys the essence of the baseball player in a way that feels grounded and true to life. That includes playing psychological games with an opponent or giving advice to a fellow player who's had a bad night. It also means that even though his team hasn't done well this season, the final game isn't a throwaway- he points out that it still means something to other teams in the pennant race. And late in the film, when he utters a prayer of sorts... it seems entirely appropriate. Billy isn't asking to win. He just wants the pain in his arm to go away for a few minutes.

The film bounces back and forth in time as a game plays itself out. It explores the nuances of a game and the crossroads of a great career, all while getting into the heads of the characters. In exploring a relationship through flashbacks, Raimi gives us a strong character study that for me worked just right.


  1. What a fine review! It's been awhile since I saw the movie, but I remember enjoying it very much and after reading your essay, now I know why!

    Hope all is well up your way!

  2. Never saw this as I'm not much of a baseball or Costner fan. Nice review though!

  3. I haven't seen this one. Baseball films usually don't attract me often, with the exception of A League of Their Own (hmm, wonder why? :). Great review though--if I get a chance I'll have to check this out.

  4. And here's another one I haven't seen....

    I haven't really seen too many sports movies, though I think I would like to see Moneyball.

  5. Saw the movie, loved it, bought the soundtrack and the DVD. Of course I like baseball and thought the back and forth of life and baseball was a great metaphor. Excellent review. are the best reviewer I have ever read.

  6. @Lowell: thank you!

    @Cheryl: thanks!

    @Meradeth: you should!

    @Norma: you should check this one out.

    @Carole: I watch this, and I've got chills down my spine all through the eighth and ninth innings.

  7. Brilliant review William.. I think this trilogy was some of Costner's best work.. wonder if he actually played baseball :)

  8. Wow, I actually saw this one—well parts of it anyway. I know I didn't watch the whole thing.

  9. This sounds wonderful! Though I do love Kevin Costner, I want to read this book before watching the movie. This sort of parallel of game to relationship is an intriguing one. From your review, it seems like the translation to film has kept much of that intact, but I bet the novel is phenomenal!

  10. @Grace: only in his school days, college, as I recall.

    @Kelly: it's a good one to catch again.

    @Diane: the book's terrific, though there are some changes from book to screen.


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