One of the many ironies in "Eight Men Out" is that if the key players of a professional baseball team conspired to lay down for the World Series today, they'd soon be selling book and movie rights and entertaining every talk show host from Oprah to Geraldo.
Of course, with television coverage and instant replays, it would also be a lot harder to fake the bad plays necessary to blow the series games.None of this is lost on writer-director John Sayles, whose "Eight Men Out" chronicles the downfall of eight players who loved the game but who got caught in an old trap and couldn't climb out.
It happened in 1919 to the Chicago White Sox, an incident that set the sports world on its ear and became known as the "Black Sox" scandal.
The way Sayles sees it, the team members were underpaid and underappreciated - team owner Charles Comiskey here makes Scrooge seem generous - and though he tends to paint his villains and heroes rather stereotypically, "Eight Men Out" is a fascinating survey of the events leading up to the scandal and the sad results that followed.
The film builds by showing us the individual players, ecstatic at having won the pennant - but their promised bonus for that win turns out to be only flat champagne from Comiskey. Then pitcher Eddie Cicotte is, on a technicality, not given the $10,000 bonus he was promised for winning 30 games (he won only 29, and it is implied Comiskey purposely had him benched so he couldn't win the 30).
When Chicago gamblers decide to try to bribe some of the players to throw the series, so they can be more sure of where to place their bets, Cicotte is the key player needed to pull it off - and once he falls, everyone else is easily won over.
Everyone that is except "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who is most reluctant but eventually goes along, and Buck Weaver, who becomes aware of the conspiracy but refuses to accept money or play badly.
In the film it is two sportswriters, Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton, who first become suspicious during the games that something is not quite kosher - the players just don't know how to play badly, to convincingly fumble the ball. Sayles shows Lardner and Fullerton watching the games closely and comparing notes to confirm their suspicions. And eventually it is Fullerton who blows the whistle.
Sayles' approach to the story is distinctive, in that he uses his cast as an ensemble and shifts the viewpoint from character to character so that everyone gets a moment in the sun. Unfortunately, the film is a bit top-heavy on characters, and a natural byproduct is that some are just skimmed over (it may seem odd to moviegoers that a big star like Charlie Sheen has a relatively minor role here). But the actors are all so good that they fill in the blank spaces and audience sympathy is with them most of the way.
Of special note are David Strathairn as Cicotte, John Cusack as Buck Weaver, D.B. Sweeney as "Shoeless" Joe, Sayles himself as Ring Lardner and Studs Terkel as Hugh Fullerton.
Sayles is a sleek filmmaker, and he's taken a bigger bite with "Eight Men Out" than with his other films, most of them much smaller in scope. But he pulls it off, gives us some wonderful characters and tells a great, if sad, story in the process.
"Eight Men Out" is rated PG for some profanity.