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'Bang the Drum Slowly': Of Pitchers & Catchers
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
02:07PM / Friday, May 08, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.

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Some of my baseball friends pooh-pooh my placing director John D. Hancock's "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973) among my very favorite sports movies. Yup, right up there in the top rung with "The Natural" (1984), "Eight Men Out" (1988), "A League of Their Own" (1992) and the lone non-baseball finalist, "Hoosiers" (1986).
 
"Nah, all of 'em too sad ... more about life than the sport," opines one detractor who otherwise sure knows his way around the national pastime. To which I respond, "Precisely, dear Watson."
 
Because, that's just the kind of hairpin I am. I claim standing via my dream of becoming a pitcher for the New York Yankees baseball club.
 
It germinated at about age 8. There is in long-held dreams an acquired expertise. Surely it was written in my destiny. Anyone who had seen the fastball that little kid on Dewey Street could throw would have to agree. But I was being cautious just the same, which didn't mean that I'd study accounting in college. Nope, nothing that drastic. I had a plan.
 
I'd surely make the Yanks. But and however, in the off chance I didn't, I'd pitch for the Phillies. They're only 90 miles south of Newark, and my friends could drive down and see me play.
 
Afterwards, we could get something to eat and they could tell me how proud of me they were.
 
And, just in case the unthinkable occurred and neither of those teams signed me, well then, I'd assent to play for the Cubs. They were pretty much Sad Sacks back then and it was the least I could do to brighten their fortunes.
 
Such, I like to think, is the ego required to be a Major League ballplayer. Too bad I didn't have the curveball to go with it. All of which points out that while Tom Hanks' Jimmy Dugan in "A League of Their Own" maintains that there's no crying in baseball, he doesn't say there isn't whole bunches of human drama, of which "Bang the Drum Slowly" exquisitely loads the bases.
 
I'll save for another time my thesis about how the baseball rulebook, chockfull of fairness, sportsmanship and respect for one's fellow human being, is the game equivalent of the U.S. Constitution. But if you think about it, the true greats in both the fields of statesmanship and baseball have by and large done their very best to play it straight.
 
Of course, it's not always easy, especially if, like star pitcher Henry Wiggen, smartly played by Michael Moriarty, you're surrounded by a clubhouse full of ballplayers rendered cynically downtrodden by their seemingly unshakeable misfortunes on the diamond. The personal invectives get downright nasty in and around the ballpark where the N.Y. Mammoths play.
 
Particularly offensive to Henry is how many of the players denigrate his friend, roomie and battery mate, Bruce Pearson, a simple country boy and easy target who never lived up to his once presumed potential, emotively portrayed by Robert De Niro.
 
Educated, urbane, confident and financially well-heeled in good part through his side gig selling insurance, Henry, whose teammates chidingly refer to as Author, feels it his duty to protect Bruce, not so much from the slings and arrows of the ballplayers, but from himself. Enamored of obvious gold-digger Katie, played by Ann Wedgeworth, the good-natured catcher is tempted, per her continual imploring, to make her his sole life insurance beneficiary.
 
But while this is all inconvenient and somewhat troublesome, the proverbial boom is lowered when Bruce is diagnosed with a very serious illness. He resigns himself to trudge on nevertheless, with Henry his trusty confidante. The manager, a hard-nosed, profit-savvy campaigner portrayed in an Oscar-nominated bit of seriocomic wonderfulness by Vincent Gardenia, mustn't know. Nor can the other players. Can the two pals keep it a secret?
 
Thus, the scene is set — as is the usual template for baseball movies — for that season that was.
 
However, as correctly declared per my aforenoted decrier, don't expect to see a whole bunch of hitting, pitching and diving for flyballs. And any delves into strategy are not so much about the game itself, but chiefly concerned with navigating the complexities of the human condition. Still, entrusted to the capable hands of this film's splendid roster of actors, the out loud ruminations, squabbles, camaraderie and epiphanies that can occur in a dugout, clubhouse or hotel lobby prove every bit a vicariously fulfilling immersion into the sport as a close play at the plate.
 
But the main reason to see this absorbing, character-driven morality tale that Mark Harris adapted for the screen from his novel is for the touching bond into which Moriarty and De Niro breathe life: the pitcher-catcher relationship as a tear-laced, buddy-buddy metaphor for devoted friendship.
 
And going into extra innings here, the rumored backstory is that De Niro was originally cast as the polished mound ace while Moriarty was to play the slow-witted backstop. It's hard to believe.
 
But then again, when Geena Davis was asked how she was able, despite no background in baseball, to feign superstar proficiency in "A League of Their Own," she said, "It's called acting." Anyway, just that additional aside to mull should you make "Bang the Drum Slowly" one of the diverting oases in your overall game plan to play it safe at home.
 
"Bang the Drum Slowly," rated PG, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by John D. Hancock and stars Michael Moriarty, Robert De Niro and Vincent Gardenia. Running time: 96 minutes
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