ESPN’s 30th anniversary was more than two years ago, and it’s been almost a year since the “30 for 30” documentary series – designed to both celebrate the anniversary and show off ESPN’s reach and creativity – concluded. (You can read my reviews of most of the “30 for 30” docs here and here.) But having discovered that there’s an appetite for off-beat, deeply personal films about sports stories big and small, ESPN has wisely kept the concept going – if not the name(*) – and the now-rechristened “ESPN Films Presents” series has a very strong unofficial kick-off with the 8 p.m. debut tonight of Alex Gibney’s “Catching Hell.”
(*) Personally, I’d have kept it as “30 for 30 Presents.” They spent more than a year building up brand equity, and it just sounds cooler than “ESPN Films Presents,” frankly.
“Catching Hell” – the story of infamous Cubs fan Steve Bartman, who was the scapegoat when the Cubs failed to reach the World Series in 2003 – was originally supposed to be part of “30 for 30,” but Gibney’s schedule, film festival eligibility and other issues pushed it back to now. It was worth the wait.
Gibney’s a Red Sox fan, and though that franchise has had a lot of success in recent years, its older fans know very well from heartbreak and cruel twists of fate. (And its youngest fans are finally learning about that with how this season is ending for the Sawx.) So even though his own favorite team overcame the bogus Curse of the Bambino, Bill Buckner booting the Mookie Wilson grounder(**), Bucky F-ing Dent, Aaron F-ing Boone, etc., he can empathize with fans of another “cursed” franchise whose living fans have never seen a championship. And in this case, he can empathize with Bartman, who interfered with Moises Alou’s attempt to catch a foul pop-up that would have put the Cubs 4 outs away from their first World Series appearance since 1945, and who became such a pariah that he’s been forced to construct a kind of shadow existence in his home city so the media and angry Cubs fans can’t find him.
(**) Buckner’s story becomes a kind of running subplot for “Catching Hell,” and between this movie and his “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode, Buckner’s having one hell of a TV season.
Gibney doesn’t get to talk to Bartman, but he talks to virtually everyone of note at Wrigley Field that night, exhaustively deconstructing everything about the Bartman play. He uses computer graphics to isolate Bartman and several other fans who were sitting in that area, syncs up the delayed radiocast that Bartman was listening to on his headphones with the live action to show how out of sync Bartman would have been with the play, and over and over makes the case that almost anyone in the stands would have done what he did(***), and also that many other things went wrong afterwards that had nothing to do with Bartman. (“The best thing that happened to Alex Gonzales is certainly Steve Bartman,” says Cubs fan/filmmaker Matt Liston, whose own videotaped footage from the stands that night plays an important role in this movie.)
(***) One of the film’s many interview subjects, pub owner Pat Looney, admits to also going for the ball – and can be seen doing it – and would’ve been the scapegoat had the wind been even a little different.
It’s a thorough and thoroughly humane defense of an individual who made a mistake and hurt his team, who apologized for it instantly and still had to go into hiding, and it’s the best thing that could have happened to Bartman short of the Cubs actually winning the World Series within his lifetime. I imagine there will still be some die-hard Cubs fans like Michael Wilbon who will never forgive, and only forget if/when there’s a championship banner flying over Wrigley, but overall “Catching Hell” plays out like a film about a prison convict whose punishment was far out of proportion to his crime.
It’s a terrific film – had it aired as originally scheduled, it easily would have been in the top tier of “30 for 30” films (alongside “The Two Escobars,” “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson,” “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks,” “The Band That Wouldn’t Die,” “Muhammad and Larry” and “The Best That Never Was”). Instead, it gets the new version of the series off to a great start.
Enjoy it tonight, and feel free to comment on it here afterwards.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org