Wednesday, October 05, 2011

ESPN Films: Catching Hell

When the ESPN 30 for 30 series was originally announced in early 2009, one of the films listed was Catching Hell by Alex Gibney. This was billed as the Steve Bartman story. In the 8th inning of Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship series, Cubs fan Steve Bartman reached for a foul pop fly and tipped the ball away from Cubs left fielder Moises Alou. His action caused anger and rage from fellow Cubs fans.

The film never ran during the orginal 30 for 30 run. Bill Simmons indicated on a podcast that the director wanted more time. After appearing at the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring, the film has finally aired as part of a series of seven documentaries that ESPN Films is running this fall.

Watching the film over a couple of nights, I was surprised by three things. First, the film spends a lot of time looking at the Bill Buckner story. With the Red Sox leading the Mets 3 games to 2 in the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner allowed a ground ball to roll through his legs and the winning run to score. The Mets went on to win game 7 and 1986 World Series. The film spends more than 15 minutes at the beginning and then almost 10 minutes at the end exploring the Buckner story. I didn't expect this part of the film. Conceptually, the idea was to tie the two stories together given that both Buckner and Bartman were unfairly made scapegoats. The film superficially looks the idea of scapegoats, including the origin of the term.

Second, I was very surprised that the film was two hours long. I don't think that the length completely works. I feel that Gibney tried to pull too many different pieces together. For example, there is some footage in the later half of the film with a pastor talking about a sermon that she had given about Bartman that seems out of place. I think that it would have been better served to have made two 45 minute film documentaries: one of the Bill Buckner story and one on Steve Bartman. Reading about Buckner's career after seeing the film, I think that they could have made an interesting film focusing on Buckner.

Third, the footage and story telling replaying the events after Bartman tips the ball away are extremely good. The footage looking at the reaction of the crowd and the efforts of the security guards to get Steve Bartman safely out of his seat and eventually out of the stadium is compelling. The power of this segment makes the documentary worth seeing in spite of whatever warts it might have.

Bill Simmons has a podcast with Alex Gibney.

In addition to being available from Amazon, the film is available from iTunes.

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