Eight Men Out (1988) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Director John Sayles is a legend among independent filmmakers. He makes all different types of films about a wide range of subjects. Financing his directing projects with his scripts and other things, he has managed to make some excellent films that manage to maintain a social consciousness and a sense of the special nature of being an American, with respect for regional and minority cultures.

Sayles carries such a saintly aura among film buffs that it often irritates me, because he has his share of problems.

This is Sayles' script, and it is really not very good unless you are a baseball fan, in which case it is extremely good. You see, Sayles' script expects you to know who all these characters are. Well, there are probably many of you who don't even know who Shoeless Joe Jackson is, although he was one of the best players of all time, and only about 1 out of 1000 will know Swede Risberg or Kid Gleason or Sleepy Bill Burns, so you're going to get very confused by all these characters and wonder what their interrelationships are. 

I know all the details of the Black Sox scandal, in which several Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the series, and I was confused. The two actors who played Ray Schalk (C) and Eddie Collins (2B) look and sound so much alike, that I often couldn't figure out which of them was which. The various gamblers got so confused in my mind that I completely forgot who was doing what. The sportswriters were so poorly defined that I watched the entire film without realizing that director Sayles was supposed to be playing the part of the famous sportswriter Ring Lardner.

I've read Asinof's book upon which this film is based, as well as innumerable other accounts of the scandal. I can name the complete line-up of that team from memory, and I was confused. So imagine how confused you are going to be.

Having gotten that out of my system, let me say that I liked the movie a lot in spite of my confusion. Some thoughts.

The field action looked beautiful and realistic. The players didn't look good enough to be major leaguers, but they looked like they were really playing baseball in a real 1919 stadium with all the proper atmosphere. They even had the fielders leave their gloves on the field after each half-inning, as they used to do in those times, and they got each player batting and throwing from the correct side, unlike Field of Dreams. If the players didn't look like super-jocks, neither do the real players of that time when seen in old films. I was completely convinced. The ball traveled slower than when thrown by real major league pitchers, but that was really them throwing strikes to each other and hitting the ball. 


They got the facts of the case exactly right. They didn't do as well with the interpretation of the facts. Although the film makes Charles Comiskey more of a villain that he really was, the book did that as well. It is worth remembering that while Comiskey was a typical strong-arm industrialist skinflint of the times, he was not a monster who forced good men to turn to evil. Sayles tries to make this some kind of a labor vs management class struggle, and that is misleading. The players all signed their contracts and were expected not only to abide by them but to maintain a code of honor expected by everyone in America. The Eight Men Out didn't just betray Comiskey. They betrayed America. They betrayed the kids who believed in them. 

They betrayed themselves.

It is too simplistic to say that Eddie Cicotte took the gamblers' money because Comiskey screwed him out of $10,000. While the players were virtually indentured servants in those days, powerless against the owners and their big money connections in the courts, the players did have two very powerful forces on their side - the newspapers and the fans. If Cicotte had taken his case to the newspapers, Comiskey would have been raked over the coals so hard that he would have had to do something to stem the bleeding of his reputation. But Cicotte chose to steal from Comiskey and the fans rather than to take his case to the court of public opinion.

Cusack did a great job in the lead role of Bucky Weaver, the guy who played his hardest, but was banned from baseball because he knew the facts and didn't rat out his teammates. D.B Sweeney and Michael Rooker were exactly how I pictured Shoeless Joe and Chick Gandil. Sweeney could also throw and hit properly, as could Charlie Sheen as Happy Felsch. I have never formed any mental picture of Eddie Cicotte, but I sure enjoyed the way David Strathairn brought him to life. Cusack and Strathairn could have been nominated for Oscars without any regrets. The characterizations, in general, were brilliant, as were the period details.

I also enjoyed the epilogue in which Buck Weaver was watching Shoeless Joe play for a semi-pro team in New Jersey. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • no meaningful features

So I give Sayles the director a solid A for his detail work, but I have to give Sayles the screenwriter a low score for an incomprehensible and unfocused screenplay that assumed everyone would know and love this story before seeing the movie. The only condensation he exercised was to drop one of the outfielders from the cast. (Did you notice that every outfield ball was hit to Felsch or Jackson, and that the other outfielder was never seen or mentioned?) Sayles should also have just eliminated some of the gambler characters and condensed the story. Hell, I still don't know or care who all those gamblers were. 

Anyway, if you love baseball or American history, or sympathize with the workers' side in the era of socialist revolution (this story happened at about the same time that workers across the world were throwing off their shackles), you have to see this film. Many true fans consider it the greatest baseball film ever made. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, Maltin 3/4, Apollo 79/100.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.3, but Apollo users only 46/100. 
  • With their dollars ... about $5 million gross
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Top notch baseball film, but incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't already know the story.

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