Alex Gibney‘s latest documentary, “Catching Hell,” will no doubt appeal to the ESPN crowd (the film is presented by the network), but I think it’s best enjoyed by people who find sports rather silly. Or, not sports themselves but the hardcore fans and media, both of which nearly ruin baseball and other such athletic entertainments for us casual enthusiasts. I don’t want to seem holier than thou or hate on the sports obsessed in general. But I do think a lot of people take sports too seriously, and this film really highlights the oftentimes ridiculous and occasionally violent nature of the ‘big fan’ as well as the way the media incites and encourages such behavior while practicing its own mean-spirited and yellow journalistic methods. After “The Bully Project,” it may just be the best non-fiction choice for outcasts attending the Tribeca Film Festival this year.
One person who likely won’t enjoy the film is Steve Bartman, focal subject of “Catching Hell” for first being the center of an infamous 2003 incident during a playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins. Longtime Cubs fan Bartman became an enemy of his own people (complete with many death threats) when his attempt to catch a foul ball interfered with outfielder Moisés Alou’s ability to do the same. He ended up becoming a recluse, the “J.D. Salinger of sports fans,” and is no closer to coming out into the open now. Not only is he not in Gibney’s film, but I highly doubt he appreciates the continued attention 8 years later. Regardless of the doc being in support of him. Even positive portrayals can be unwanted, and this film follows such works as “The Tillman Story” and current fest-circuit hit “Resurrection Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” for putting the spotlight on figures who would prefer not to be the center of so much fuss.
“Catching Hell” is not just about Bartman, though. It also spends a good deal of time on Bill Buckner, infamous for letting a ball go through his legs during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, an incident credited as the downturn for the Red Sox during that significant match against the Mets. 25 years later, Buckner has been forgiven. And, more importantly, he’s forgiven the fans and media, and he participates in the documentary as one of the talking heads, which mostly are comprised of sports writers and other less expert witnesses of the games at hand (including people sitting around Bartman). Buckner’s fumble is likely a way for Gibney to fill up time that might have otherwise been utilized for an in-depth interview with Bartman, a la Eliot Spitzer’s lengthy, liberating testimonial in “Client 9” (which premiered as a work-in-progress at Tribeca last year). It also presents the parallel in a way to help exonerate the later, similarly hated scapegoat. And in a way, as is addressed on screen, it’s a way for the filmmaker to approach the topic from a familiar place, he being from Boston.
The fact that Gibney admits to that subjectivity is not terribly strange. He’s done enough voice-over narration for his documentaries that we know him as a personality within his work (and we’ve heard him more and more behind the camera during interviews, too). But “Catching Hell” is quite interesting for being a huge leap further into first-person filmmaking for the Oscar winner. It’s easy to lose track given how many documentaries he puts out a year, but I can’t remember Gibney actually appearing in any of his films, at least not at the level he does here. “Catching Hell” opens with the filmmaker’s appearance on a sports radio show, talking about how he’s making a doc about Bartman. I almost want to blame the excitement over the (familiar) meta-ness of Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” for this kind of reflexive introduction.
Later he films himself walking around the Dominican Republic and while there meeting (with one of the most staged handshakes in doc history) for an interview with Alou, during which he continually cuts to reaction shots of himself laughing at things the former Major Leaguer is saying. I haven’t seen so much self-indulgent footage since Oliver Stone‘s similar reaction shots in his recent doc “South of the Border” (I’d say it’s something in the air in Latin America, but that wouldn’t explain Angela Ismailos, full-of-herself maker of “Great Directors”). Gibney also sometimes sounds like he’s picking up narration habits from Michael Moore, such as saying things like “ah, yes, well…” in his voice-over.
Maybe when you’re as prolific as Gibney, you want to try things out that work for other documentarians, just to experiment? And some of the time this style works for him, especially if it’s a topic he’s more personally interested in (though he’s always seemed pretty passionate about the subjects he explores). Other techniques are fresher and thereby more appreciable, such as the special effects employed to constantly isolate pieces of the MLB and crowd-sourced footage to analyze it exhaustively from all angles and without distraction (after a while, I began thinking of the Zapruder film analysis, or more appropriately the baseball-related “Seinfeld” parody of that analysis involving Keith Hernandez).
But the more we see of that footage, the more I feel bad for Bartman, who is front and center on screen for even more time than Gibney is (that’s actually not saying a lot. But Bartman is on screen maybe more than most first-person documentarians). It just seems awfully contradictory. And in the end it’s probably futile anyway — fitting since Gibney keeps mentioning the word futility in the film, yet also antithetical, perhaps.
Otherwise, and in spite also of an unnecessary interview with a woman brought in to explain the origins of the term “scapegoat,” “Catching Hell” is a solid examination of the baseball fan’s eccentricities and dare I say flaws, such as his fixation on curses and omens (one moment involving a black cat on the field is too hilariously perfect and improbable that I still have trouble believing it really happened) and compulsion to pinpoint exact causes and errors in order to easily place blame (though this is not too different from man’s general handing of history, I guess?).
One thing the film addresses without exploring it too directly is how problematic this sort of fan behavior is to the sport, since clearly there’s something to the atmosphere of a stadium that greatly affects the direction of a ballgame. I’ve been to enough Yankees games to know how easily you can get swept up in the fever of both good and bad collective attitude. I’m guilty of shouting “asshole” and bullying on the other team’s fans in the past. I’ve experienced the decrease in enthusiasm that never fully picks up, possibly contributing to hurting the outcome of the score. “Catching Hell” made me feel horrible about the times I’ve been part of the worst in baseball fandom. I’d love to see it speak to other more hardcore and consistent attendees and remind them that it’s all just a game.