There was a time in this country when athletes were giants among men, revered and respected as warriors that proudly took to the field in the epitome of our patriotic zeal. Today, in the harsher, colder America that followed Vietnam and its parallel revolutions at home, sports have become a frenzied pastime racked with scandal and plagued by human greed. The honeymoon has certainly ended for our young country, but devoted Yankees fan Billy Crystal heroically champions the better days in this staggeringly good television movie that tells of friendship and quest for immortality shared by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in the summer of 1961.
History has written Maris (Barry Pepper) as a self-proclaimed small town boy and the rival of Yankees golden boy Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane). Crystal, a close friend of the Mantle family, dares to tell the truer tale, one of two friends pitted against each other by a press hungry for drama in a time when records were only made to be broken by people deemed appropriate to break them. As they tackle the ’61 season, they are both on track to surpass Babe Ruth’s standing record of 60 home runs in a season. As Mantle’s boozing, carousing, and injuries catch up to him, Maris comes into the spotlight as the man to do it. Unfortunately, the American people want one hero, and not him. What unfolds is as epic an underdog story as sports films muster, rooted in a domestic story of family and friends torn apart by a merciless public.
61* has been heralded for its shining cast, winning a CSA award. Barry Pepper, hot off of breaking out as the religious sniper in Saving Private Ryan, is Roger Maris. Their similar look is uncanny, and his attention to detail on the plate convinces of the batter’s authenticity. Thomas Jane, now the endearing star seducing the households of America in Hung, breaks out with his work in this project, painting the strong spirit of a man who loses the record, but stays true to his friends. Rounded out with a plethora of familiar faces, including Anthony Michael Hall, Richard Masur, and Bruce McGill, along with Crystal’s own daughter Jennifer as Mrs. Maris, the story takes flight with an attention to the nuances of every character and performance.
The star of the film, however, is undoubtedly Crystal himself. An icon who dominated the comic screen through the ‘80s and ‘90s, he continues to entertain with his quick wit, lilting voice, and bubbling optimism. His work has always been of the inspiring kind, capturing life in an all-together positive light, even in spite of the momentary tragedies that find us all. 61* is a love song to Crystal’s youth, spent with his own father in Yankees stadium. His memory is of the romantic America that watched the greats in person, an idealistic experience never to be repeated. He tells his story with an awareness of the nation’s ugliness, even in those glory days, but does so without ever leaving the central hope and heroic perseverance of his leads.
How this pitch-perfect yarn about simpler times came and went relatively unnoticed is hard to understand. Made for TV, the film deserves a place on the silver screen. On par with the inspiration of sports greats like Rocky, with the professional precision of the best of the genre, Crystal’s accomplishment helped launched two incredible actors and hopefully through their fame, this Tale of Two Batters will be rediscovered and find its audience.
BLU-RAY BONUS FEATURES
Three simple features chronicle the 1961 Home Run List, along with Mantle and Maris’s Hitting and Fielding Stats. Unless you’re a diehard MLB fan, however, these impersonal numbers won’t amount to much. The real features worth investing time into touch on the personal level, from an audio commentary by Crystal that reveals his deep knowledge of the material and attention to its accurate portrayal. Also included is a featurette about the making of 61*, fittingly entitled The Greatest Summer of My Life. Every so often a movie comes along that pairs the right material with the perfect director. 61* is one of them.
"61*" is on sale June 7, 2011 and is rated R. Biopic. Directed by Billy Crystal. Written by Hank Steinberg. Starring Barry Pepper, Thomas Jane.