Thursday, February 18, 2010

Canon Movie Review: Bang the Drum Slowly

Earlier this evening, I watched the 1973movie Bang the Drum Slowly. I didn't plan on it, but it was on Turner Classic Movies, so I figured what the hey. The movie stars Robert DeNiro in one of his first major roles as Bruce Pearson, a baseball catcher that finds out he is dying, and Michael Moriarty as star pitcher Henry Wiggin, Pearson's roommate. The movie also stars Vincent Gardenia, who was nominated for the best Supporting Actor Oscar, playing manager Dutch Schnell. Bang the Drum Slowly was directed by John Hancock, and was based on the novel of the same title by Mark Harris. A few notes from the film:

Warning: Spoilers Ahead:

- Even though DeNiro's character is the one dying, the story focuses mainly on the character of Wiggin, the star pitcher for the New York Mammoths (based on the Yankees). Wiggin is portrayed as a smart man, a man that sells insurance in the offseason and to other ballplayers (back then, major leaguers had second jobs). The story is from Wiggin's point of view, from his tumultuous contract negotiations, to his struggle to keep Pearson's cancer secret, to his fight with DeNiro's girlfriend Kate over his insurance policy payout (Wiggin wants it to go to DeNiro's parents because Kate's a golddigger). Throughout the film, it's obvious Wiggin cares a lot about Pearson, he even puts in a clause in his contract that states if Pearson is sent down to the minors or traded, than Wiggin goes where he goes (that would be illegal these days , according to Major League Baseball, by the way).

- While Wiggin is an intelligent star pitcher (kind of like Orel Hershiser or Greg Maddux), Pearson is thought of as a dumb hick from Georgia, who gets ragged on unmercifully by his teammates. Also, unlike Wiggin, Pearson is far from a star player, as some people wondered if he would be sent down in favor of prospect Piney Woods, a motorcycle-riding, pistol-wielding cowboy. The team as a whole, according to Wiggin, would be a whole lot better if everyone didn't rag on each other, although we hardly get to see any of the ragging except for a few scenes with Pearson.

- DeNiro's a hell of an actor, however, I had a hard time believing he was a power threat, as described by Wiggin, the manager, and a couple of the coaches. DeNiro couldn't have been over 5'10" and was built like a middle infielder, so it would have made more sense if he were a line-drive hitter or something. To his credit, DeNiro didn't have a bad looking swing. Also, since DeNiro is not a southerner, he spent months before the movie in Georgia, in order to get the accent right. I must say he did pretty well on that front.

- The movie is obviously a sad one, as you learn at the beginning that Pearson's going to die. However, the movie is rather subtle in its telling of the story. With one exception (a locker room scene in which an unaware Piney plays a country song about the death of a cowboy), there aren't a whole lot of tear-jerking scenes. If this movie was made today, there would be ten different scenes where the two leads were crying, and the movie would be full of over-dramatic, sappy music. Come to think of it, the whole movie wouldn't work today, as Wiggin wouldn't have had an insurance job and Hodgkin's disease is more curable today.

- There's a subplot in which Dutch, the manager, tries to figure out why Wiggin and Pearson did in the off season (they went to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, then visited Pearson's folks in Georgia after Pearson's diagnosis). It took the team four whole months before a private investigator finally figured out what happened. I don't think Dutch and his staff were the sharpest knives in the drawer.

- The baseball scenes are intercut with scenes from actual major league games. In one scene, they show Tony Perez from the 1970 World Series, and Yankees such as Thurman Munson were shown (it's rather convenient that Pearson wore Munson's number 15). There aren't a whole lot of baseball scenes in the movie, as it's a story more about life. The majority of the scenes take place towards the end in Pearson's last game, where the Mammoths clinch the division against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Overall, the movie is pretty good, DeNiro is very good in a role which is much different than the types of roles he would later master, while Moriarty adds a sense of credibility to the role of Henry Wiggin. I do wonder why the movie didn't focus more on Pearson, as there were some points where he was just an afterthought. The movie is made decently enough, the plot is very good. But it just seems to be missing something, it seems as if the movie could have expanded some scenes (particularly the scene at the beginning where DeNiro is burning his old newspaper clippings). I think the movie may have moved too fast, may have been too compact for its own good. However, with that said, the movie is still very good, if not great. I'd give it a 6.82 out of 10.

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