Picks and Pans Review: Eight Men Out

updated 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The 1919 World Series dealt a near-fatal blow to our national pastime, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox played ball with gamblers to throw the Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Eliot Asinofs acclaimed 1963 book on the Black Sox, as the press dubbed the team after the scandal, could have been corrupted by Hollywood's penchant for hokum, hunks and happy endings. (Just think of the Bernard Malamud-Robert Redford collision on The Natural.) But screenwriter-director John (Matewan) Sayles dodges the usual foul balls of ego-tripping stars, trumped-up love stories and easy heroes and villains. A complex, true story emerges: The Sox's tightwad owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James) shamelessly underpays his players. First baseman Chick Gandil, played by Michael (Above the Law) Rooker, easily persuades three teammates to bite into the poison apple proffered by New York crime czar Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner): $200,000 in bribes. But the fix would have fizzled if Gandil hadn't brought in the team's respected pitcher Eddie Cicotte (a stunningly detailed, moving portrayal by David Strathairn). With Cicotte come three of the team's best: hard-hitting left fielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), pitcher Lefty Williams (James Read) and third baseman Buck Weaver (John Cusack). Sayles shows a keen eye for the team's shifting loyalties and an unerring ear for the excuses players, families, businessmen, gamblers, press and fans can invent to justify greed. Each member of the talented cast, including Charlie Sheen in a self-effacing cameo as center fielder Hap Felsch, makes a vivid impression. Sayles cast himself as Ring Lardner and author Studs Terkel as Hugh Fullerton, two sportswriters who act as a wry comic chorus. One of the film's highlights shows a tipsy Lardner sauntering through the Sox's Pullman car warbling, "I'm forever blowing ball games." All eight Sox players were eventually acquitted in court but banned from playing pro ball again. The light shed on this dark period of sports history makes Eight Men Out essential movie going. But what makes it heartbreaking is watching the toll taken on champions betraying their talent on a field of honor. "Say it ain't so, Joe," pleads a little boy tugging on Jackson's sleeve as he leaves a courtroom. You'll leave the theater knowing exactly how the kid feels. (PG)

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