A dramatization of the Black Sox scandal when the underpaid Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to deliberately lose the 1919 World Series.
Baseball is America's pastime, but it's far from innocent. The game grew up from humble farm field beginnings and has turned into a multi-billion dollar a year industry, where athletes compete by rounding bases one at a time. Some love the game for all of the thrills and unexpected potential any game can hold - others can't stand the slow pace. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, one thing's undeniable, baseball is one hell of a dramatic game with a rich history. The 1919 "Black Sox" scandal where players on the Chicago White Sox team purposely threw the World Series for bribe money was a foundation-rattling event for the sport, and the ramifications of the scandal are still felt today. John Sayles' 1988 film 'Eight Men Out' is a thrilling and attention grabbing play by play of what happened, who the major players were, and how this incredible event shaped sports history.
The Chicago White Sox are the best team to take the diamond. They run up the score against their opponents and easily win the pennant race to move onto the World Series. While these guys should be on cloud nine, they're in the pits of despair because they work for the notorious penny pincher of a club owner, Charles "Commie" Comiskey. Comiskey is so cheap he barely pays his men enough to live on. When they win the pennant, he gives them flat champagne as their "bonus." When the boys refused to wash their uniforms, he agreed to wash them - only he took the laundry fee out of their pay at the end of the year. When guys like Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) have families to feed, it doesn't take long for the buzzards to start circling smelling the fresh meat on the field.
Fixers like Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd), his partner Billy Maharg (Richard Edson) got it in their heads that the best way to bet on baseball is to guarantee a sure thing - by buying off the players to throw a game or two. As it happens, another shark in the water "Sport" Sullivan (Kevin Tighe) has the same idea and is moving in on disgruntled Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker). When the trio of fixers see they're on the same side of things, they have a mind to team up rather than battle it out. In order to guarantee that "sure thing," they're going to need a roster of players - guys like Swede Risberg (Don Harvey), Pitcher Eddie Cicotte, relief pitcher Lefty Williams (James Read), hot head Oscar Felsch (Charlie Sheen), Fred McMullin (Perry Lang). These men were game for sticking it to "Commie" if it meant earning some extra cash on the side.
What the gamblers and the crooked players weren't aware of was the fact that everyone knew something was off. Fans knew it. Sports writers knew it. And worst of all for the scheme, a whole side of honest players like Buck Weaver (John Cusack) and Eddie Collins (Bill Irwin) all knew about it and were against them. Then there were players like "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) who were generally unaware of what was going on or the severity of it and were caught in the middle of the scandal. Add in some backstabbing by the gamblers and a group of guys expected to get a payout all of a sudden were throwing games and not getting paid for it. When the eyes of the league started focusing in on this specific group of players, it was clear action was going to be taken in the form of a Grand Jury investigation and a trial that would forever change baseball.
'Eight Men Out' is a near perfect sports film. It showcases the thrills and excitement that comes from playing the game and being in the dirt to watching your favorite team in the stands. It also doesn't shy away from the darker parts of the game. Not only are we in the thick of the mess with these seemingly crooked players - we're also given the chance to see how their penny-pinching boss holds onto them like dogs on leashes. Comiskey was a club owner that was famous for making promises to players and then finding ways to renege on the deal leaving the player who spent a summer busting his chops high and dry. This film also shows that in this particular instance of sports betting, this wasn't exactly the most brilliant scheme ever undertaken. It's almost comical that the plot even got as far as it did considering that most of the players involved in the fix never even saw an initial payment - so what were they even throwing the games for?
As a film, writer and director John Sayles shows he has a true grasp of the material by shooting 'Eight Men Out' as a character drama, an exciting sports film, and a legal thriller all in one. While it certainly could be argued that the legal-heavy final act is a bit shortchanged considering all that happened during the trial and after, the film still manages to cover the broad strokes and leaves you with a sense of understanding and appreciation for the men on both sides of the event. You understand why these guys are now in this position to throw a game or two, and we're also given reasons to appreciate the men who didn't take this betrayal lying down. At the heart of this film are some amazing performances by David Strathairn, John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, Don Harvey, Michael Rooker, John Mahoney as Sox Manager Kid Gleason, and Clifton James as the infamous Charles Comiskey. This is about as perfect as casting can get for any movie, let alone a sports film. D.W. Sweeney is particularly impressive when you consider he had to learn to hit left-handed and then mimic "Shoeless" Joe's cartoonish running style.
What's great about a movie like 'Eight Men Out,' especially when you look at the event itself in hindsight, it allows the audience to draw connections to more recent events. From Pete Rose's sports gambling issues all the way up to the more recent doping allegations with performance enhancing drugs - all of the rules and regulations that govern the sport can be tied back to the national embarrassment that this event caused the sport of professional baseball. In an incident like this, there are no winners and losers when everyone lost some time. Some men were perhaps given the raw end of the stick while others got exactly what they deserved.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Eight Men Out' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Olive Films pressed onto a Region A locked BD50 disc. Housed in a standard case, the disc opens directly to the film's main menu.
'Eight Men Out' probably looks as good as can be expected for an MGM back Catalogue title from 1988. While the source print looks to be in fine shape, with little to no wear or tear present, this 1.85:1 1080p transfer doesn't exactly sparkle in a way that a more recent remaster would. That isn't to say that it's ugly by any means, it's just not as impressive as it possibly could be. That said, fine film grain is retained throughout giving rise to a welcome film-like appearance. Colors have a golden sepia tone to them so primaries like blues and green grass may not pop the way you'd expect but gives you the feeling you're watching a period film. Black levels are decent, but never quite approach inky-black that would be needed to give the image a notable three-dimensional feel. Still pretty good and considering this film's previous DVD treatments I'm not going to split hairs too much as this is a fine presentation and lends itself well to Blu-ray.
Now for a tad bit of odd note to make you aware of. This doesn't come in the form of Teal/Orange or Friedkin-level color alterations. Depending on how you watch this Blu-ray, you may notice that some of the player's heads look really fat. When I watched this disc on my stand alone player, I didn't notice anything wrong at all, but when I popped it into my computer to review the extra features and grab some screenshots, all of a sudden I noticed that Michael Rooker's head looked a lot bigger. After watching the film for awhile, I noticed that the image would slightly stretch ever so slightly here and there. There wasn't any discernible pattern and it wasn't something that you could actually see happen, but all of a sudden a particular actor would look heavier and wider than they did in a previous scene. Now, I've played this disc on a standalone Blu-ray player as well as my PS3 and PS4 and I didn't notice this issue in the slightest. But after trying three different Blu-ray disc programs on my Macbook and my PC setup - for some reason the image would stretch ever so slightly and in random spots. I dug around and it would appear that other folks are spotting the same issue as well. So, if you want a clean experience that doesn't make the actors look like they were hit by bees, watch the Blu-ray on a standalone Blu-ray player. Perhaps Olive will address this issue at some point. I'm still calling this transfer a 3.5/5 but with a note of caution attached.
Thankfully, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track provided for 'Eight Men Out' is without issue and is downright splendid. The track really kicks into high gear during the numerous game sequences, especially towards the end of the film when the team is in the depths of despair and trying to dig out from behind. Dialogue is crisp and clean throughout and there are no clarity issues or sudden volume shifts. Levels are perfectly balanced so you shouldn't need to monitor your volume. Surrounds provide a nice sense of imaging, even during the quieter moments. As mentioned, the game sequences are the fullest, but even little moments where the guys are in the locker room staring at a table of flat champaign you can hear groans of displeasure and the sounds of cleats on cement to round out the imaging effects. This is a pretty fantastic audio track and fans of the film should be very pleased.
Audio Commentary: Writer and Director John Sayles provides an entertaining and insightful commentary track for this film. The man clearly had been working hard for years leading up to the production as he proves to be a fountain of information about the events in question without being too anecdotal or just full of sports trivia but also covers casting each athlete with an actor who could actually play the game on camera.
Retrospective Documentary: (HD 57:54) Far better than your standard EPK behind the scenes look at the film. This documentary features plenty of cast and crew interviews that offers up a ton of information about the production and reception of the film.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:20)
I like 'Eight Men Out'. You don't have to be a lover of baseball to appreciate the human story at the film's center. It's a finely crafted film that is well shot, written, and directed, and features a cast of great actors giving their A Game. Olive Films has brought the film to Blu-ray in fine form with a strong image transfer, a fantastic audio mix, and some genuinely worthwhile extra features. Be warned about the previously mentioned image issue if you're watching off a computer - I have no insights as to why this Blu-ray looks one way on a standalone player versus a computer drive, but it does. Still I'm recommending this disc since I have a hunch most people would watch this movie on a dedicated home theater-style setup.