Don DeLillo’s Game Six

Don DeLillo has written a movie about baseball, Game Six, which is strange for several reasons.

First, DeLillo is a novelist, not a screenwriter, and he’s not a particularly accessible novelist at that. He’s known for taut, bone-clean postmodern prose about helpless, well-meaning adults facing the fear and anxiety of modern life. He sometimes brings in real-life characters like Lee Harvey Oswald or Chairman Mao, and he sometimes tilts the story towards the surreal, a la Harold Pinter, just to keep us guessing. His stories always maintain a hard, cold surface, never fully allowing the reader inside, and rarely delivering climactic moments. How this was going to translate into a baseball flick seemed not at all clear.

Game Six stars Michael Keaton as a nervous but brash playwright who loves the Boston Red Sox. He’s feeling a bit nervous because his new play is opening on Broadway the same night the Red Sox face the New York Mets in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Keaton’s character seems to enjoy life, though he’s struggling to juggle a vivacious girlfriend (Bebe Neuwirth), a moody teenage daughter and a bitter soon-to-be ex-wife. He takes solace in his hopes for a Red Sox World Series victory (not knowing, of course, that the Red Sox are about to lose badly in one of the most suspenseful baseball games of all time) and he frets over the possibility that a hip new drama critic played by Robert Downey Jr. will savage his new play.

Downey’s character is the movie’s oddest and most crucial touch; the conceit is that he’s such a searingly honest critic that he has enraged all of New York City to near-murderous rage and has to hide out for his life in a strange loft. Of course, the fact that New York City hates him and wants to kill him does not affect his vast popularity, and all of Broadway waits with bated breath to hear what he’s going to think of Keaton’s new play, which of course he cannot see without wearing a disguise and packing a gun.

Most of the movie revolves around the interaction between the playwright and the deeply eccentric critic (when we first meet this character, he’s lighting candles and swooning in an intense private ritual like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now). I don’t want to give too much away, but I would like to urge anybody who is interested in DeLillo’s work to see this film.

DeLillo’s chilly tone turns out to translate very well onto film, especially when handled by excellent ensemble actors like these. It can be a struggle to get through a thick DeLillo novel (and there are a few thick DeLillo novels I haven’t even bothered to struggle to get through) but this movie is a breeze. It’s also a good introduction to the DeLillo mindset, in which strange social undercurrents bind us all in haphazard ways. For instance, a venerable old actor is the star of Keaton’s new play, but he can’t remember his lines, and the mental block that plagues him is a clear metaphor for the famous “vapor lock” baseball players speak of when they commit inexplicable errors.

The gritty acting and photography fit the material well. The camera swirls dizzily up the sleek high-rises of Manhattan. A steam pipe blows on a busy street, spewing gray dust; later, Keaton and his father talk about the possibility that New York’s buildings might fall (we know where all of this is coming from, and 1986 has got nothing to do with it). The baseball metaphor that permeates the movie somehow ties into all of this societal angst, and when Keaton joins a cab-driver and her grandson to finally watch game six in a sports bar, it seems clear that everything in the universe is at stake.

Unfortunately, the movie starts to become unhinged around the time the baseball game begins, and it never recovers. Guns get pulled, clothes get strewn, special effects start to break in upon the realism (Bill Buckner actually jumps into the sports bar from the TV set at one point, and Michael Keaton finds himself lost in a hallucination of violence against two happy Mets fans). The ending is a botch-up, but this is not a fatal failure. Somehow the sense of high weirdness in the final scenes turns out to be a good correlative for the unreality and anger Keaton’s character feels about the Red Sox choking in the last inning, and it all makes some kind of strange sense, maybe.

I only have a few small gripes. First, as somebody who knows just a little about the 1986 World Series myself (I published a novel about it three years ago) I am disappointed that DeLillo’s screenplay perpetuates the myth that Bill Buckner played a key role in the Red Sox choke-up on October 25, 1986, when they lost a two-run/two-out lead in the tenth inning. In fact, the players who deserve the most blame for blowing the game are pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, who let both Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell reach first base on singles, and Bob Stanley, who threw the historic wild pitch that Mookie Wilson expertly dodged, allowing Kevin Mitchell to score the tying run. The game had already been tied, the Red Sox balloon already popped, by the time a dejected and shocked Bill Buckner leaned down and failed to come up with the ground ball that produced the winning run, and every baseball fan knows it’s unfair that Bill Buckner’s name became a national joke as a result of game six.

The worst thing about the Buckner cliche is that it makes the Mets great comeback sound like a first baseman’s error, when it was in fact a testament to the courage of four men, Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, Ray Knight and Mookie Wilson. With two runs down, two out and nobody on base, Gary Carter stood at home plate and refused to accept the possibility of defeat. Each of the four batters faced the same dizzying pressure. Note that none of them hit a home run or even a solid double during this miracle inning. They rose to the challenge, they squeezed it out, one scrappy single after another. Despite what Jimmy Fallon will tell you, despite what Don DeLillo will tell you, despite what anyone will tell you: the Red Sox did not lose game six. The Mets won it.

DeLillo’s bitterness towards the New York Mets is also regrettable, since Red Sox fans and Mets fans have in fact always had a strong camaraderie (and why shouldn’t we? We all hate the Yankees). I don’t like the way Keaton’s character sneers at the Mets and whines about his sad Red Sox as if they were the only losers out there. “I’ve been carrying this team on my back my whole life,” he cries at the beginning of the film. Well, buddy, I’ve been carrying the Mets on my back my whole life, and that’s not much fun either. Red Sox fans and Mets fans understand this camaraderie, but DeLillo completely fails to capture any element of this.

So, all in all, Game Six gets high marks for story, acting, cinematography and dramatic suspense. You should see this film for a high-quality blast of Don DeLillo tension and irony. But if you really want to understand the meaning of the game that was played on October 25 1986, read a book that gets the baseball right.

21 Responses

  1. Humped Back”I’ve been
    Humped Back

    “I’ve been carrying this team on my back my whole life,” he cries at the beginning of the film. Well, buddy, I’ve been carrying the Mets on my back my whole life, and that’s not much fun either.

    All the more reason why Red Sox and Mets fans should convert to Yankee fans right this moment! Ha!

  2. Great ReviewI may have to
    Great Review

    I may have to catch it on DVD, although I have to say I find Robert Downey Jr. completely unwatchable. Despite this, it does sound like an interesting film and the story behind how it was made will probably make it a favorite of film darlings and gadflies everywhere. I do wonder, though, where you would place this film among other baseball flicks. Because, to paraphrase Tom Hanks, there’s no coming out of the TV in a Matrix-style hyperreality in baseball.

    In any case, I can’t wait for the other version to appear on the big screen.

  3. home runLevi, I see you’re in
    home run

    Levi, I see you’re in top form today. Based on your review, I’m definitely going to see this movie.

    Your enthusiasm for baseball is contagious, too. Sports columnist material.

  4. Good question, Caryn. I
    Good question, Caryn. I would have to say that this is one of the better baseball movies I’ve ever seen, mainly because the competition is pretty bad. The Natural was a disaster, A League Of Their Own was too cute, Pride of the Yankees was about the Yankees, and I didn’t catch Angels in the Outfield.

    The only two baseball movies that might compare are the original Bad News Bears and, of course, the film with the funniest baseball scene of all time, Naked Gun, featuring Leslie Nielsen as a moonwalking umpire at a California Angels game.

  5. You forgot an all-important
    You forgot an all-important moment in baseball cinema… and one of my mom’s favorite movies: Major League. I’ll try to let that slide. Of course then there’s Bull Durham and Field of Dreams… but perhaps we’re veering away from the topic at hand.

    So about that new Bonds book…

  6. Aargh, you’re right! I
    Aargh, you’re right! I didn’t see Major League, but Bull Durham is a great movie and I can’t believe I forgot about it. No, this movie was not as good as Bull Durham, and few movies are.

  7. Michael KeatonI haven’t seen
    Michael Keaton

    I haven’t seen this film, but I will, based on all the good reviews, including yours.

    What you and the other critics have neglected to mention is that Game Six seems to mark the re-emergence of Michael Keaton as major “actor”. For many years I used to say to anyone who would listen that Keaton couldn’t make a bad film, and I eagerly looked forward to enjoying each new one. Then, just like Steve Martin, he appeared in a slew of disastrously bad films and I gave up on him. So now Keaton’s back and I can’t wait to see him!

    By the way, I still think that Robert Downey, Jr. can’t make a bad film.

    Also, I think I’ll now re-read “The Summer of the Mets” to refresh my memory of your insights on that fateful game.

    And for a final by the way, it’s perfectly OK for you to keep hating the Yankees — all reasonable people do.

  8. FC, at the risk of sounding
    FC, at the risk of sounding snide, are there any actors you do like? Robert Downey, Jr. is top-notch! I can’t think of a movie he hasn’t been good in. So, he wakes up in strange places sometimes; that’s just an indication of adaptability.

    Levi, I would really like to hear your take on Major League if you ever see it. Also, maybe you don’t consider Field of Dreams a true baseball movie in the strictest sense, but I like it.

  9. heh — yeah. after having
    heh — yeah. after having read levi’s review, even i feel like seeing this movie… and i don’t even care about baseball.

  10. Won’t be seeing itI just
    Won’t be seeing it

    I just finished White Noise by Delillo, which is probably his best known novel as it won the National Book Award.

    Here’s my problem with Delillo — he is allergic to plot. White Noise was interesting with many discussions about death, but that was about it. There really was no plot. I suppose that a novel without a plot is like death itself, pointless. But then again, doesn’t death give meaning to life? If so, shouldn’t a plot give meaning to a novel?

    Just because you are “postmodern” doesn’t mean you can abandon plot. Or maybe you can. Whatever.

    But as a life-long Cubs fan, nothing pisses me off more than Red Sox fans bitching about how hard it is being a Red Sox fan. Another reason not to see the movie.

  11. Levi, of course I’m right…
    Levi, of course I’m right… also you really should see Major League lest you be barred from the entire Midwest for life.

    Bill (aka Snidely), sure, I like a lot of actors, I even like Michael Keaton, but I just can’t stand Robert Downey, Jr. because no matter what role I’ve seen him in, he never quite sheds that annoying, posturing, pre-facial tic Dangerfieldesque weirdness to stop being Robert Downey, Jr. and to actually portray the character he’s supposed to be portraying. But that’s just me.

  12. You guys left out For The
    You guys left out For The Love of The Game from your baseball litany.

    Or does that not count because everyone here hates Kevin Costner?

    Levi, you would like it because Costner plays an aging pitcher who no-hits the Yanks. The love story part was a little sappy, but the baseball theme I thought was riveting, especially what a major league pitcher goes through to accomplish his craft.

    Wow, can you tell it’s spring (training) or what?

    Play ball!

  13. RDJ is s great actor, but a
    RDJ is s great actor, but a sucky person.

    Am I the only Yankee fan here? I hope Levi doesn’t kick me off!

  14. FC, you might be thinking of
    FC, you might be thinking of Morton Downey, Jr.

    ha, just kidding. I commend you for the deft summation of your RDJ analysis.

  15. Well, I do hate Kevin
    Well, I do hate Kevin Costner, but his performance in Bull Durham was undeniably good so I overlook the fact of who he is.

    Field of Dreams … yeah, I just don’t go for that stuff. But I will see Major League, if Caryn’s mom likes it that much.

  16. Dave, I pretty much agree
    Dave, I pretty much agree with you on White Noise. That was the first DeLillo book I read, and it’s the one I’d recommend to anybody else reading him for the first time. It’s a strong book, but it has absolutely zero forward momentum and reading it feels like work.

    The funny thing is White Noise actually *does* have a plot (big dark cloud of metaphorical pollution descends on college town). But DeLillo’s writing style is so determinedly uninteresting that it creates the illusion of a book without a plot. Quite a trick he pulls there.

  17. Now let me get this straight.
    Now let me get this straight. A book with “zero forward momentum and reading it feels like work” is selling briskly but a bunch of other people can’t get published…why?

  18. brooklyn, I agree with you
    brooklyn, I agree with you that it was work to read White Noise. But many of the plot points just evaporate. The protagonist is a professor of Hitler Studies, but this really doesn’t go anywhere. A bunch of former east coast professors come to the college, which leads to good conversation and comic relief, but does not advance the plot. The wife’s affair and the man who she has the affair with (the guy who created Dylar) doesn’t go anywhere. The whole dark cloud story just allows the characters to discuss death — which is fine, but then the cloud just disappears and well, I can’t really remember much about it. (Not a good sign.)

    So I think I’m done with Delillo. I’m glad I read the book and I’m convinced that Delillo is brilliant. But I really need a good plot to keep me interested and to make me want to read something by the author again.

  19. the mets are pond scumi
    the mets are pond scum

    i realize i run the risk of you not reading this just by the title. ah well.

    in those most glorious 80s i was a tyke in rural missouri rooting for the st.louis team. (who have a fairly rich history… though the best of it is at least 40 yrs back. ozzie smith was a wonder.)

    an fm radio station in the area made t-shirts with the infamous slogan above: ‘the mets are pond scum’

    i think the point was that the mets were rather low forms of life if they were indeed alive at all.

    i definitely had such a shirt. there was a neon smear of green. surely scum. a mets logo being smeared. and surely on the back call letters of the radio station and a fredbird or somesuch thing. i wish i still had one.

    i’d also say i follow the mets more closely in this town. i have an affinity for the NL. i still harbor deep down prejudice & puzzlement toward the dh. i like a pitcher who can hit. see bob forsch or hell, tom glavine.

    in 86 i was living in upstate new york if you want a little tshirt irony.

    i’m a sucker for delillo. well, i devoured underworld after first thinking it was silly for being so damned long. and overall i hold novels in these times should be short, entertaining, funny and move vigorously. you better be terrific to make anything over 350.

    i’m excited to see this flick. i might even go to the movies. hopefully with a sox fan. RDjr and michael keaton sound like a primo combo.

    how about sports? the thing i like most about sports may be the passion of fans. i’m really a hockey fan. but i like listening to baseball on the radio. and i like sports talk radio in the middle of the night. both are surely soothing and heartening how people dedicate themselves so much to sports (and their own loneliness?) and their teams etc. to sit on hold on the sports talk radio station so they can have a 30 second chat with some guy who tends to repeat himself whether or not he’s good at what he does.

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