Feb. 8, 2008

Eight Men Out (1988)
Grade: 85/100

Director: John Sayles
Stars: John Cusack, David Straithern, John Mahoney

What it's about. Set during, and after, the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. Chicago has a great year and a great team, and are heavy favorites (at first) to beat the Reds. But the Chicago players aren't happy, because stingy owner Comiskey (Clifton James) pays them low wages and reneges on their bonuses.

That makes certain players susceptible to professional gamblers. Soon, half the team is in on the fix, set up by Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and funded by high-living gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner). Players accepting payoffs include pitchers Cicotte (David Straithairn) and Williams (James Reed), as well as Shoeless Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), Hap Felsch (Charlie Sheen), and others.

The gamblers are so greedy that they put nearly all the money into bets, instead of properly paying off the players. The players, then, throw only those games that they are paid to lose. Once the series tightens, at four games to three (out of nine), the gamblers turn to coercion to ensure the outcome.

Left out in the cold is Buck Weaver (John Cusack), who knows about the conspiracy but refuses to participate in it. He plays well in the series, but is unaware that simply keeping his silence makes him an accomplice to the crime. The "Black Sox" scandal eventually makes the papers, and baseball resorts to hiring a powerful commissioner to ensure that owners will do what is best for baseball, instead of what is best for their own bank balances.

How others will see it. Many men enjoy conspiracies, gamblers, and baseball players. Add a compelling story and a top-notch script, and you have a great, or nearly great, movie. For women, the subject matter is of lesser interest, although I suppose the players are hunk material. Still, the quality of the film is so obvious that few will walk away from it disappointed.

How I felt about it. It helps that Cusack, Sheen, and Straithairn have become name actors. Still, despite seeing the film several times, it isn't always clear who is whom within the ensemble cast. In particular, the player's wives all blur together. Is every player's wife attractive, nice, and supportive? Wouldn't that be great, but they couldn't all have come from the same mold.

These two quibbles are about all that can be said against Eight Men Out. Okay, Cusack's respect for street urchins is overdone, and the trial didn't take place until 1921, two years after the story apparently occurs. This removes key elements from the story, such as White Sox players throwing 1920 regular season games under duress from gamblers.

Still, let's admit it. The movie has a great script, a fine cast, no shortage of suspense, and it has a theme. The theme is unoriginal, but nonetheless accurate. Money corrupts. The love of money causes players to throw games, causes owners to lose a series (and good players), and causes gamblers to cheat and threaten the players. We all need money to function properly in society. But wanting too much, too soon, can lead to wrong decisions.