By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 28, 2011 at 2:39AM
Although it contains a whirlwind of talking heads, Alex Gibney's thoughtful baseball documentary "Catching Hell" lacks the one subject who provides its topic: Steven Bartman, the meek Chicago Cubs fan whose ill-fated grab for a foul ball during a pivotal 2003 game arguably played a role in the team's failure to reach the World Series. Witnessed by millions on live television and replayed untold times since then, Bartman's sudden bad move turned him into Chicago's public enemy number one virtually overnight, forcing him to hide from view. Studying the event and its fallout, Gibney constructs a compelling portrait of fandom's darker side.
Dubbed "the J.D. Salinger of Cub fans" by one of Gibney's many sources, Bartman remains a phantom character throughout the movie, but the director still gives the story an intimate dimension. As usual, the filmmaker provides a voice over, but in this case he also appears on camera, discussing his project with a Chicago radio host and scrutinizing its implications.
Although not a Windy City native, Gibney finds a way to personalize the incident, just as many Cubs fans did. Having grown up in Boston, he analogizes the Bartman incident to the similar antagonism toward Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, whose legendary 1986 snafu led fans to blame him for causing the team to lose the World Series that year. Gibney uncovers the disconnect between the complex reasons for both teams' losses and the maniacal distortion of their reputations that frustrated baseball junkies readily endorsed. In that tension between truth and fiction, he reaches profound conclusions about the dangers of mass hysteria.
Gibney's narration is essayistic, littered with colorful evocations of the events in question. Gibney describes the Bartman incident, arriving 95 years after dashed hopes of a World Series title, as "the anguish of what might have been." The aftermath was "the darkest hour in Wrigley Field history." He uses vast library of footage from this tumultuous period to recreate the event from virtually every perspective.
It's here that "Catching Hell" moves beyond simple reportage and becomes a movie. Gibney's chops as a documentarian come into play with this detailed breakdown of Bartman's fleeting grab for the ball, a thoughtless act that knocked it from the path to outfielder Moisés Alou's glove. As if analyzing a crime scene, Gibney returns to the moment time and again from multiple angles (including never-before-seen amateur video). He matches radio broadcasts to the play, imagining how the headphone-clad Bartman must have experienced the narration of his behavior with a seven-second delay. Gibney ramps up the suspense by constructing the tense minutes following the fumble, when security pulled Bartman from the stadium and snuck him out a back door, a perilous scenario in which the bloodthirsty mob of Cub fans leads one interviewee to mention the climax of "Frankenstein" as a comparison.
Gibney speaks to virtually everyone associated with the Bartman tragedy except for Bartman. He reaches a still-disgruntled Moises Alou from his current home in the Dominican Republic. Those seated close to Bartman also contribute eyewitness accounts. Gibney even finds a minister whose most popular sermon uses Bartman as an example for discussing the concept of scapegoating in Biblical terms. The only voice missing is Bartman himself. Even a trenchant ESPN journalist who stalks Bartman at his office can't wrangle a comment from him, although staying in the shadows proves to be the disgraced fan's biggest asset. "He had the most honor," somebody says, noting the humility of Bartman's willingness to disappear from view.
At the same time, Bartman's presence looms large throughout the movie in the form of the vast cultural phenomenon of his legacy. The tale has inspired Halloween costumes and led fans to visit Bartman's old seat. Gibney relishes the provocative dichotomy of two Bartmans: The man and the myth.
In his last feature, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer," Gibney explored the former New York governor's downfall in similar terms, examining the saga of a broken man put on trial by the American public. With this effort, however, the lack of access to his main subject actually deepens his treatise on the impact of the media on mass perception. Because both Buckner and Bartman have fueled the public's imagination, their narratives have universal appeal. Despite the general assertion throughout the movie that anyone could have instinctively reached for the ball that Bartman happened to grab, the vilification continues. For that reason, Gibney demonstrates a timeless theme--that while the facts tell one story, history has its own rules.
Gibney last explored Spitzer's legacy in similar terms--a broken man put on trial by the American public. Gibney's treatise of the impact of the media on mass perception works so well because he deepens his research with emotion. Buckner's salvation arrives with Sox's victory, but Bartman--positioned as a tragic loner--has yet to find the same closure. Despite a general assertion throughout the movie that anyone could have done the same thing, the vilification of his persona subsists. For that reason Gibney manages to demonstrate a timeless theme--that the facts tell one story, but history has its own rules.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warmly received since its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, "Catching Hell" will air on ESPN as part of its "30 for 30" series this fall. Baseball fans will naturally tune in, but the movie has potential for wider attention since the Bartman story has generated such vast national curiosity.
criticWIRE grade: A-