61 in 1961. One of the greatest, most iconic records in sports history, held by a man who wasn't a legend like his peers. There was Babe Ruth with his original 60, Joe DiMaggio with his 56 game hit streak, and Lou Gehrig with 2,130 games consecutively played. All Yankees, all players bigger than the game, who embodied the sport, captured the hearts of their city and the baseball world. Roger Maris, in the eyes of the world, did not deserve to stand alongside said men, let alone usurp one. The Cooperstown Hall of Fame still doesn't have a plaque for Maris, though his teammate, the untouchable Mickey Mantle, earned his on the first ballot in 1974, as did teammate Whitey Ford.
Maris fell over 200 votes short, earning less than a quarter of the writers' support. To this day, his bat, the one that hit the first ever 61st home run has a home among the baseball immortal, and despite what the late 90s and early 00s brought, his record remains in the heart of baseball purists.
Made a few years after the big home run chase of 1998 that captured the attention of the entire world, before Barry Bonds would break that record himself, Billy Crystal, a man who would go on to play a game for the Bronx Bombers in spring training years later, captured the feel of the team, the sport, and the nation, in one of the most pivotal years in baseball history with the HBO film '61*.' As Yankees fans root for their hero, the oft-injured, hard living Mantle (Thomas Jane), a man who symbolized the storied franchise's pride, there was another outfielder on the team who stood alongside him in the spotlight, the reigning AL MVP, Maris (Barry Pepper). As the two sluggers put up home run after home run, the media creates a backlash, trying to pit player against player, dividing audiences on who to root for, and eventually, who to root against. Over the course of the first 162 game season in history, the pressures of chasing the Bambino weigh on both men.
'61*' isn't your traditional baseball story, where a team fights to win a championship. In one of the golden eras of the Yanks, the team was assumed to get back to the World Series. This film doesn't even show an inch of postseason play, instead focusing on the early season slumps and eventual media sensation that was the dueling teammates hitting dinger after dinger, against the ghost of the most legendary player in baseball history. We see the stress of the media and the fans, the unwinnable situations, and the eventual turning of the fans against the man who carried the team the season before, as they felt the wrong man would break the record. And it feels bloody authentic.
Few baseball films have ever captured the aura of an era quite like '61*.' With Tiger Stadium doubling for the historic house that Ruth built, we see the ugliness of it all, rather than some assumed glory, and it's somewhat painful to watch. You see a man tortured by those who should be cheering for him the loudest, as even his home runs draw boos, despite helping his team win. Better still, '61*' focuses on the relationship between Maris and Mantle, as the dueling titans are stuck with this supposed rivalry that never existed, fueled daily by media scrutiny, misquotes, and one of the most tragically under-appreciated in its time performances in any sport.
Simply put, baseball fans must own this film. It's one of the greatest flicks devoted to the national pastime. Pepper is absolutely amazing as Maris, while Jane is no slouch playing the ladies man pretty boy. The funny thing is, there are so many great performances by character actors in the supporting roles, the entire film has this strange familiarity to it, much like one would expect watching the most famous team in sports. The behind the scenes politics of the sport, concerning the record books, asterisks, even simple management, are fascinating to watch unfold, as the deck continues to stack against the Fargo born ballplayer.
With the film's endcaps focusing on the McGwire chase, where Maris's children were on hand to witness their father's name disappear from the charts, '61*' puts you in a whole different environment, unintentionally paralleling the asterisk idea of 1961 to the yearning for the asterisk today, as not a single player who has outslugged Maris has not been long suspected of steroid and other PED use. It's almost ironic. As the true record is tied at the opening, and broken in the closing, the sporting world was done a great disservice, with the purity of the game forever thrown away, and for a good two hours, we're reminded of a different era, a moment that should have been as magical and embraced for Maris as it would McGwire almost forty years later. It's hard to not yearn for the good old days, and lifelong Yankee fan Crystal brings the purity back to the game, if even for just a short moment.
The Disc: Vital Stats
HBO's '61*' comes to Blu-ray on a Region A marked BD50 disc, with no annoying pre-menu content. What makes this release special is the extremely low MSRP, a record mark for the studio, allowing retailers like Amazon to put this already forgotten baseball gem for sale for less than a ten dollar bill. Best of all, this is no "budget" release, as there is no skimped audio or video, and there's a healthy pile of supplements to boot. This is how catalog titles should be treated.
HBO's 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode (at 1.78:1) for '61*' is quite solid.
From appropriate black levels, to superb, sumptuous textures and startlingly good detail levels, this disc is a hit. The detail levels are so good you can see the difference in paper stock used to put a picture of the actors in the place of the original photo, and even mid-range shots show great clarity in facial features normally not found there. The uniforms, the jackets, there isn't a moment not worth falling in love with, as you can almost feel the fuzz. Hair is amazingly detailed and never an aliasing trap, while the picture never suffers for depth problems, save for some obvious green screen moments for home run shots. Edges are pure, while there isn't any crush or obvious DNR in sight, while whites remain pure and free from issue.
There are some bits of dirt, some light noise, and the random soft shot that remind us this isn't some expensive brand new film, but for an inexpensive catalog release that probably didn't have all that much of a budget, '61*' shines on Blu-ray.
The sole English option on this disc is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is good, but not all that great. Inconsistent may be the word I'm looking for.
Dialogue has no problems, whatsoever, none with prioritization, clarity, dynamics, you name it. Bass levels are very light, but this film didn't have much sonic punch to it, anyways. Rears get good soundtrack and score bleed, and some random crowds that fill rooms, but that's the biggest problem on the release. Changed camera angles don't result in changed rear crowd ambience, so the same spectator sounds are heard from all angles, with no change in consistency, volume, pitch, nothing. Worse still, there are numerous moments where rear activity was to be expected, but none was to be found. It's hit or miss, sadly.
For what the film is, it sounds good, but it will never earn high marks in my book.
'61*' isn't the best baseball film ever made. It's not 100 percent historically accurate, no matter how much work was put into it, but the sheer amount of love and dedication poured into the production shows, creating a fantastic, memorable little flick that seems to get forgotten far too often in the conversations about great sports films. HBO does a bang up job with this release that is sure to appease fans and even entice newcomers. It earns any easy recommendation from me, but heck, I'm biased. Relive the days before the 'roids, when controversy still existed, and separate records were made. Hint, hint, Major League Baseball...