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.