61* (2001) / Drama

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would probably be R for language (just a few F words away from PG)
Running time: 129 min.

Cast: Barry Pepper, Thomas Jane, Jennifer Crystal, Chris Bauer, Bruce McGill, Richard Masur, Peter Jacobson, Christopher McDonald, Bob Gunton, Seymour Cassel, Anthony Michael Hall, Donald Moffatt, Joe Grifasi, Robert Joy, Michael Nouri
Director: Billy Crystal
Screenplay:  Hank Steinberg

Hardcore baseball (and Yankees) fan Billy Crystal (Forget Paris, Mr. Saturday Night) directs this sentimental memento on one of the greatest races in sports history: chasing Babe Ruth's vaunted single season home run record.  Made for HBO on a modest budget with a comedian-turned-actor-turned-director at the helm shouldn't exactly raise high expectations, and it's to Crystal's credit that he not only delivers one of the best films of the year, but it ranks among one of the finest baseball films ever made.

The year is 1961, and the main participants are two New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (the self-dubbed "M & M Boys"), who are each on pace to break Babe Ruth's single season home run record of 60 home runs.  Though good friends, and roommates, the two men couldn't be more opposite in the eyes of the media, as well as behind the scenes.  Mantle, known for liking to party, drink and cavort with more than a fair share of women, is the media darling, and the fans, reporters and teammates alike adore him.  Maris, not even a homegrown Yankee, is more of a curt, no-nonsense kind of guy, originally thinking that the fans should respect and like him for what he does on the field, not because he schmoozes with the reporters and makes small talk.  As the two heat up the headlines with their home run tears, the media is consistently negative on Maris, while the fans and organization are rooting for Mantle to ultimately prevail. 

Adding to the negativity already in the mix, baseball commissioner Ford Frick states that whoever breaks the record has a distinct advantage, as the American League of 1961 has 162 games, while there were only 154 in Ruth's day -- there should be separate records should someone break it in over 154 games.  An asterisk will be placed on the final total to denote the unfair advantage the player had by playing an extra 8 games.

Solid performances by Pepper (Battlefield Earth, The Green Mile) and Jane (Under Suspicion, Deep Blue Sea) help bolster this heartfelt saga of two men thrust into the scrutiny of the public eye.  Maris becomes vilified, not because of who he is, but who he is not (i.e. he isn't Mantle, the heir to Babe's throne at the pinnacle of Yankee superstardom).  Pepper is fantastic as Maris, a guy who rarely smiles, though not quite unhappy.  Maris is a professional who takes his job seriously, as well as his commitments, doing whatever's necessary to see that his team wins.  He never set out to break records -- he just wants to be the best ball player he can be, at bat and out in the field. 

Thomas Jane is perfectly cast as the more charismatic Mantle, a ladies man and extrovert who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Though Jane never played a game of baseball in his life, or knew much about the sport itself, it's to his credit as an actor that he is able to make Mantle convincing at the plate and fielding fly balls.  Both actors are playing to their strengths, and like the teammates they portray, they both help each other succeed for the good of the whole team, and not just for individual effort.

Though the battle for the home run record might have made a tense situation in a clubhouse, the two Yankees remained good friends, perhaps better than they normally would have been had they not needed each other to talk to when the press hounded them at every turn.  Mantle needed Maris's influence to stay out of trouble, and Maris needed Mantle to keep all of the media eyes occasionally diverted away from just him.  The pressure was beginning to make him crack, and he needed someone to buffer the extreme scrutiny he was under -- the limelight he spent most of his life avoiding.

Admittedly, 61* is made by a fan of baseball, a Yankees devotee, and a close friend of the Mantle family.  Although it doesn't ignore the personal problems Mantle would have in being a good person and role model, it does cast him in an inordinately favorable light as a great friend, teammate and public personality that could only come from a true-blue fan perspective.  Some might knock Crystal for spending too much time on Mantle and his travails instead of the record at hand, but I personally think the Mantle/Maris relationship to be the real heart of the movie.  They compliment each other so well that it's hard to imagine either of them having the strength and determination to persevere forward without the other guy to get his back.

Beautifully shot by acclaimed veteran Haskell Wexler (Limbo, Coming Home), 61* may not have the budget of a major motion picture release, but it never feels small.  It does take a bit of time to get used to the computer-enhanced shots to look like old Yankee Stadium, but the on the field action, as well as the rest of the sets and costumes are top notch.  Yankee historians may be irked by a some of of the factual inaccuracies in terms of who hit home runs when, and against which pitcher, but Crystal, working with the solid script by Hank Steinberg (RFK, "Without a Trace"), concentrates more on the spirit and meaning of the record to the main participants, their families, their organization, and their fans.  This is not an effort to give a realistic portrayal of a year in baseball as it actually happened so much as to explain why the record was so important -- perhaps the most lofty of records of its time.

Crystal bookends his film with scenes of Mark McGwire's ultimate shattering of the home run record in 1998, when he knocked 70 out of the park.  Though not integral to the 1961 record chase, by the time the more recent events are spotlighted, it carries such an emotional impact that it's impossible to not be moved to tears by the sight of McGwire embracing the Maris family and the respect he pays to Roger (touching his bat before the game) for what he must have endured during the greatest year of his career.  Ironically, three years later, during the year of 61*'s release, the record would fall yet again, this time to San Francisco Giant, Barry Bonds, who hit 73. 

In 1991, six years after the loss of Maris to lymphatic cancer, baseball would officially remove the asterisk off of Maris' record.  He died never knowing that he would officially be recognized as the sole record holder between the years 1961 to 1998.  Though his record has been eclipsed six times since -- once by Bonds, twice by McGwire, and three times by Cubs' Sammy Sosa -- all three players have subsequently been rumored to have used performance-enhancing drugs (or steroids) in order to boost their strength and prowess at the plate.  If ever proven, we might see a return to the era of the asterisk on the home run record, slighting the juiced-up accomplishments of all of those who have bested the formerly-asterisked 61 home runs of Roger Maris.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo