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MOVIE REVIEW : Sayles Connects in ‘Eight Men Out’

Times Film Critic

As he spins his mesmerizing story of the fixing of the 1919 World Series, John Sayles moves to a new level of dexterity as a writer-director. “Eight Men Out” (citywide) is the very devil of a story to tell with either urgency or clarity; it’s a tragedy in farce tempo with Damon Runyon characters and an O. Henry kicker.

Yet Sayles has done it. He’s woven each of the story’s complex strands--moral, psychological, political, journalistic, personal--into a watershed American drama that’s rich and clear.

“Eight Men Out” sometimes feels more like tragicomedy. It has platoons of gamblers, high, low and penny ante, falling over themselves to double-cross everyone. It has a bitterly divided team: eight players of the unrivaled Chicago White Sox who--more or less unanimously--agreed to throw the Series, and a bitter locker full of teammates who had nothing to do with the deal. It has loyal wives, suspicious journalists and a skinflint owner. And it has a World Series followed by a three-ring circus of a grand jury hearing.

It’s not a story that a lot of folks directly remember any more. Even its most shameless “quote” is disappearing from the language, the small boy’s plea of “Say it ain’t so, Joe” as the team’s legendary left fielder, Shoeless Joe Jackson, left a packed Chicago grand jury room.

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As Sayles brings back these last wobbly days of American idealism, he puts them clearly into perspective.

Watching miserly Sox owner Charles Comiskey weasel out of a player’s promised bonus, you understand the bitterness that could drive these young players to consider throwing a World Series. (Even before the championships, his underpaid team was nicknamed the Black Sox because Comiskey skimped on their laundry budget.)

It’s a period re-created with a whoosh of energy and a redeeming vein of irony.

If “Eight Men Out” has freckle-faced urchin boys whose faith in baseball is on the line, it also has the deft cross-editing of the opening sequence: a platitude from Comiskey about a player, then a glimpse of the man himself. Describing the natural (and illiterate) Jackson, Comiskey burbles, “He can run, he can hit, he can throw.”

“If he could read, he’d be perfect,” a sportswriter retorts dryly.

Sayles’ irony is inherent; it’s been there since “Return of the Secaucus 7.” His curiosity about interlocking groups of characters, his blue-collar sympathies are by now his signature. He has had a remarkable core of artists who are now veterans with him: composer Mason Daring, editor John Tintori, production designer Nora Chavooshian, costume designer Cynthia Flynt. What’s new is how beautiful Sayles’ films are becoming, how much more effortless their complicated structures seem.

(It’s impossible to leave out “Matewan” cinematographer Haskell Wexler or “Eight Men Out’s” Robert Richardson in considering Sayles’ deepening visual technique, but his own strides as a writer are immense.)

In the huge cast, we get to know key figures of every group. Among the eight, Sayles singles out the great pitcher Eddie Cicotte, pronounced sea-cot (“Matewan’s” hero, David Strathairn). At 35, he’s taut and tiring, the end of his career only too clearly in sight.

George (Buck) Weaver (John Cusack) is the tainted idealist, who was in on the arrangements but took no money and could never bring himself to play any way but his best. If “Shoeless” Joe (D. B. Sweeney) emerges from behind his tobacco chaw as guileless and uncomplicated, he’s not without a deep melancholy, a twinge that hits all of them, even ebullient center fielder Hap Felsch (Charlie Sheen).

And from John Mahoney, there is a wonderful portrait of manager Kid Gleason, unwilling to believe the worst of his boys.

The gamblers range from the heavy-lidded, dangerous Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner) in his silk brocade dressing gown to “Sleepy Bill” Burns (Christopher Lloyd), who himself gets shut out.

In the shut-out department, you might also add most of the players’ wives, with the exception of Maggie Renzi as Mrs. Cicotte and Barbara Garrick in a tender moment as Weaver’s wife, Helen.

Finally, there are the savvy, saddened newspapermen, Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) and Ring Lardner (Sayles himself, an eerie physical match for the columnist). Stung by being lied to by players he trusted, Lardner serenades them with “I’m forever blowing ballgames.”

“Eight Men Out” is not a bad movie for an election year. Everything that politicians cherish as “old-fashioned” and “American” is here. The Grand Old Game. Idealistic little kids. Straw hats and cat’s-whisker crystal sets.

And under the slogans and the platitudes, a terrifying erosion and no one to answer for it. No wonder Sayles, hardly an unpolitical animal, found it such a relevant story nearly 70 years later.


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