A film review by Craig J. Koban

GAME 6 jjj
½ 

2006, R, 97 mins.

Nicky Rogan: Michael Keaton / Steven Schwimmer: Robert Downey Jr. / Elliot Litvak: Griffin Dunne / Laurel Rogan: Ari Graynor / Lillian Rogan: Catherine O'Hara / Joanna Bourne: Bebe Neuwirth / Paisley Porter: Shalom Harlow / Jack Haskins: Roger Rees

Directed by Michael Hoffman / Written by Don DeLillo

"I don't believe in curses, or ghosts, or magic spells, but I'm beginning to."

Dwight Evans, Boston Red Sox Right Fielder

Post-game comments after the 6th game of the 1986 World Series

The modern ties between a person and their sports team can often be akin to that of a highly abusive relationship.  Sure, we love our favorite sports teams – often without fail – even when faced with the painfully inevitably truth that they have a penchant for absolute failure.  We adore our teams despite their obvious faults, and the way they reciprocate love back to us is to lose almost systematically.  It’s one of the oddest of any type of personal attachments.  Why in the world would anyone root and cheer on their team despite the unavoidability of their shortcomings?  Love is a strange thing, indeed. 

There are abused and tormented sports fans, and then there are Boston Red Sox fans.  No team in professional sports history has had such demons in their collective closets.  Fans both old and new have endlessly cheered them on over the years, often to the point where a World Series championship looked easily in their grasps.  Alas, this is the Boston Red Sox, a team that (up until recently) was known for the manner with which they disappointed their legions of diehard fans.  Some fans that I know of actually relish in how the team seems – ironically – to go completely out of its way to not succeed.  The joy – it’s often been described – in following this team is to bare witness to the new ways that they try to avoid success.  If that’s not a wretched and troubled relationship, then I don’t know what is. 

Some take their sports as seriously as a heart attack.  Truly, some of these people are fairly hopeless, but perhaps in the case of Sox fans, they have a right to be stern about their team.  Take the infamous and legendary 1986 World Series where – on October 25 – the Sox were poised to take a 4-2 series lead and win for their first World Series win since 1918.  In sports years, that is like several eons.  To make that even worse, the team was inexplicably shadowed by the “Curse of the Bambino.”  At the time, they simply were not been able to win a title since the franchise traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.  Sounds silly, right?  Well, as history has proven, what some people take as superstitious horse feathers, other people take as gospel. 

Anyone that did not believe the "curse" to be something real to be feared found October 25, 1986 to be a strong and bitter wakeup call.   Although I am hazy on specific details, I have friends that can easily recount this day.  Boston was leading in the 10th inning and were one – I repeat – one out away (with no one on base) to take their first Series victory in nearly 70 years.  The victory looked simple, but to Sox fans, they must have known that something would give…and give it did.  Miraculously, the Mets got three consecutive singles to make the score 5-4.  Bob Stanley came in for relief and the Mets third base coach told the runner - Kevin Mitchell - to prepare for a possible wild pitch.  With a Nostradamus-like bit of forecasting, the coach was right.  One wild pitch later and the Mets went on to tie the score. 

What occurred next is what just may be the evidence that Sox fans point to in order to convince skeptics that the Bambino Curse was alive and well.  Mookie Wilson hit a routine grounder to first, but what followed would prove to be the largest proverbial stab to the hearts of all Sox fans everywhere.  The first baseman, Bill Buckner, had a date with infamy.  He went down to scoop up the grounder.  In went harmlessly through his mitt, trickled passed him, and the third base runner went to home plate.  The Sox lost.  The Mets won.  It was a game that Boston fans would never, ever forget.  Notwithstanding that, but that game alone made even the atheist for superstition in me turn to full-on believer.    

This entire prologue, of course, ultimately leads me to the brilliant new film, GAME 6.  It is not so much a film that chronicles that despised night of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series as it is a work that uses that event as a catalyst to show one man’s own inner paranoia and lack of distrust in the world.  It is a simple, yet powerfully mounted, metaphor.  Sure, most fans were surly heart broken when Buckner missed the hit that any pee-wee baseball player could have nabbed, but the ’86 Red Sox loss – at least in the film – has larger spiritual ramifications.  The film chronicles how one man – downtrodden in his genuine lack of faith in anything in the world – has every morsel of positivism ripped apart from his soul.  When a man experiences failure, it certainly makes him prone to feel that it seems like the only option.  Easily, one can see why watching that dreaded Game 6 could turn anyone into an eerie and dangerous fatalist. 

If anything, this miniscule costing film (it was made on a shoestring $500,000 budget) represents a triumphant return to form for Michael Keaton.  Always a vastly underrated talent, Keaton has always infused in his characters an oddball and surrealistic quirkiness and veracity.  His energy and vitality is often infectious, oftentimes making even his least approachable characters approachable.  Often known for comedic films, Keaton has graced the screen in some fine dramatic performances.  He was a revelation back in 1988 in CLEAN AND SOBER where he played a recovering alcoholic.  Unfortunately, Keaton hit absolute rock bottom in 1998 in the pitiful and wretched JACK FROST, an ill-fated family film that was nearly the nail in the coffin for his career. 

He slummed around in subsequent films of varying degrees of low worth.  Movies like FIRST DAUGHTER, WHITE NOISE, and the unfathomable HERBIE: FULLY LOADED did very little to help re-solidify Keaton in the upper echelon of gifted performers.  He had one bright moment in the wonderfully made TV film LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, but that was his only good film in nearly ten years.  Well, GAME 6 is well worth the wait, because Keaton’s work in it is the best of his career and one of the best of this short year thus far.  It is a performance with Oscar written all over it. 

He plays Nicky Rogan, a New York playwright and a die-hard Red Sox fan.  Never once during the course of the film did I not believe that this man was a playwright.  When Keaton speaks he does so with conviction and with a level of subtle poetry.  His words feel rehearsed, but a man of such passion and wit speaks them.  He loves the Sox, but he has a hauntingly lyrical manner of talking about them.  Normal people would say, “Yeah, I like the Sox’s.”  Not so for Nicky.  He comes up with words that would make Hemmingway blush with envy.  “I’ve been carrying this franchise on my back since I was 6 years old.”  He further elaborates, “The Red Sox are always winning, until they lose.  Winning is easy, but losing is hard, especially when you keep having to do it.” 

The film takes place on the night of Game 6, which would make it an odd period film, I guess.  The settings are sparse and could have easily been used for the stage instead of the screen.  The screenplay itself is the work of novelist Don DeLillo, who has been praised for his cutting edge focus and sensibilities on probing the essence of the overwhelming malaise and sense of utter self-doubt that Americans felt in post-WWII urban life.  He has dealt with these issues and placed them in the larger context of how they manifest themselves in larger, contemporary problems of the danger and violence of the streets.  Behind all of this, ultimately, is his mantra on failure.  That is the subtle brilliance of GAME 6.  It uses baseball as a force that nurtures a man’s intense sense of idiosyncratic apathy.  It’s one thing to feel sorry for yourself and others around you, but damn it, when your Sox lose a game like they did in October of 1986, then your faith in humanity as a whole comes crashing down. 

Nicky is a Sox-aholic, one of those beleaguered chaps that worships his team even in the face of absolute collapse.  To make matters worse, he is also a writer with an equally destructive chip on his shoulder.  He has a play that – either ironically or fatefully – opens the same night as the sixth game of the World Series.  During an early scene in the film he abandons a cab after – of all things – a steam pipe sprays asbestos into the air.  He seeks shelter at the closest place – a bar – where he meets an old friend, playwright Elliot Litvak (played well by the dependable Griffin Dunne).  Naturally, being staunch New Yorkers, they take the dangerous asbestos surge with a grain of salt, but this also affords them the chance to talk about something their mutually hate.  In their case, it’s a critic named Steven Schwimmer (played by Robert Downey Jr.).  He’s a critic so tough and harsh that he has been forced to live in hiding, wear disguises to play showings, and carry a gun with him.  His reviews are that volatile.   

Naturally, the fact that Schwimmer be seeing the opening night of Nicky’s play worries him.  Nicky has other problems, though.  The one actor in his play (Harris Yulin) can’t seem to remember his lines very well.  Also, when Nicky comes in contact with his estranged daughter (Ari Graynor) in another cab, she informs him that his wife is going ahead with divorce proceedings.  To complicate matters more, Nicky is also having an affair with an investor of his play (Bebe Neuwirth).  Oh yeah, then there is also that pesky Game 6 of the World Series. 

Realizing that he has to choose over the lesser of two evils, Nicky decides to go to a local watering hole to watch the game as opposed to seeing his play for the train wreck he thinks it’ll be.  As the night progresses, there remains an unrelenting vibe of pessimism and a stinging potential for disaster.  His play could get berated by Schwimmer in the press the next day, but – gasp – his Sox could lose as well.  His anxiety is slowly lessened when he knows – deep down in his dark heart – that the Sox will lose.  Yet, his companions that night in the bar – a cab driver and her son (Lilias White and Amir Ali Said) - try to serve as his muses of optimism.  All you need is faith, they tell him.  Soon, when the 10th inning comes rolling by, Nicky seems to start believing.  However, when he sees Buckner’s unfathomably atrocious flub, he reaches his boiling point and goes through an emotional freefall with nearly fatal consequences. 

There is an unmistakable aura of desperation and pathos that underlines every minute of GAME 6.  It deserves worthy comparisons to a similar toned film, Martin Scorsese’s great AFTER HOURS.  Both films are, obviously, about New York and a particular New Yorker who has a wild rollercoaster of a night.  Both films have their main personas at the brink of an emotional crisis and both cement their respective characters in an environment that places a strangle hold on them and does not give them any breathing room.  In GAME 6 the city itself is a character that looms heavily over Nicky.  The urban chaos around him sort of compartmentalizes him in a society that he feels is void of hope, but this is more clearly reflected in his choice for being a Sox fan.  No where else would you feel the world swallowing you whole than in a New York bar, cheering for the Sox, during the World Series.  Sorry, but that simply is a situation that is already primed for collapse. 

Keaton is simply brilliant as Nicky.  He plays the role with his quintessential penchant for fast-talking and sharp-tongued irreverence, but what he absolutely nails is his sense of impending emotional implosion.  There is a clearly identifiable atmosphere of dread that looms over this guy’s shoulders, and Keaton sells this marvelously.  Some people feel disgruntled by being defeatist.  Keaton’s Nicky takes it too a whole new level of painful melancholy.  He seems to take great pride in his deeply rooted passions for not having faith in the Sox, which – in turn – manifests itself into not having faith for anything.  His indifference is startling and unsettling, and seeing the look in his eyes when Buckner misses that ball is like witnessing thousands of voices cry out in terror.  It’s one thing to suffer from atrocity – a bad play review of your own work – but two in one night?   More than any other performance thus far in 2006, Keaton's in GAME 6 unequivocally carries the film, and there is not a false note in it.  The Academy better shake off the dust from their attention spans and give him a nomination next Spring.

GAME 6 is a sublimely told and modest little character driven masterpiece.  Despite its genuine lack of a large-scale production budget, the film erupts on the screen as a keen and astute meditation on the contemporary American psyche that is berated by the public’s ever growing sense of suspicion and paranoia.  The film is deceptively simple in terms of execution and design, but it speaks volumes by letting the well-articulated characters muse on their condition.  It has a pitch perfect tone, a well-assembled cast, and a performance by Michael Keaton that shines with an eccentric level of intrigue and pathos.  Ultimately, what makes the film work so well is how acute it is as a study of a man that is obsessed with the prospect that there is no hope in sight…at all.  They say that the the eyes are the windows to the soul, and to see Nicky bare witness to his team that – for one brief instance – he once had faith in crumble before his eyes with one error of a first baseman’s glove is demoralizing in itself.  

The poor sap.  The Sox never had a chance.

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