(United States, 1984)
On some level, I'm sure my fondness for this motion picture is related to my love of baseball - a sport I have adored since the early 1980s (in fact, since around the time The Natural first reached theaters. This is a wonderful, uplifting film - one of the few feel-good motion pictures that doesn't gall me with its overtly crowd-pleasing mentality. Unlike the novel from which it was adapted - a rather dark and downbeat narrative - the movie is nostalgic and triumphant. It also doesn't demand that its viewers like baseball (although some basic knowledge of the game is an asset). By dealing with universal issues like redemption and human frailty, the film opens itself to a wider audience than those who typically see sports movies. In fact, I know of several people who dislike baseball but still love this film. Everything about The Natural contributes to a great movie-going experience: effective direction by Barry Levinson, a perfectly-pitched performance by Robert Redford (before the wrinkles started becoming apparent), a tremendous score, and gorgeous cinematography. The film was a modest box office success, grossing $50 million, and earned 4 Oscar nominations (including a Best Supporting nod for Glenn Glose and one of Randy Newman's upteen chances for the music).
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film's early scenes depict snapshot events from the youth of Roy Hobbs - playing catch in the fields with his father, carving his own bat (named "Wonderboy") from the wood of a tree split open by lightning, striking out big-league ballplayer "The Whammer" on three pitches. Then, on his way to a tryout with Chicago, Hobbs (Robert Redford) encounters Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), a deranged woman who is on a mission to kill "the best" in every sport. She sets her sights on Hobbs, lures him to her hotel room, then shoots him in the stomach with a silver bullet. The injury puts Hobbs' baseball career on hold for a long time. He vanishes into obscurity, only to emerge 16 years later as a thirty-something rookie for the 1939 New York Knights. When his new manager, grumpy Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), sees him, he comments, "You don't start playing ball at your age, you retire." After spending about half the season sitting on the bench, Hobbs gets a chance to start when the previous right fielder is killed crashing through the outfield fence. Once he gets into the line-up, Hobbs is unstoppable, hitting home run after home run. He's an instant sensation, and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) wants to know where he comes from and why he has never been heard from before. Meanwhile, the Knights' owner, the Judge (Robert Prosky), dangles the lure of a long-term contract in front of Hobbs if he makes sure that the Knights don't make it to the playoffs. It seems that the Judge has a deal with Pop - if the Knights miss the pennant, Pop has to sell his share of the team to the Judge. Hobbs refuses to agree to anything underhanded, which makes him the target of sly manipulation by gambler Gus Sands (Darren McGavin) and his girl, Memo Paris (Kim Basinger).
Sometimes, pure technical accuracy isn't enough. Sometimes, artistry has to be taken into account. One such case in point is Barry Levision's The Natural, arguably the best baseball movie ever made. The film works not because it is flawless in its depiction of what transpires on the diamond, but because it captures the spirit of the game at a time when baseball truly was the National Pastime. Watching The Natural, it's possible to see all that is great about baseball - the chess match between managers, the poetry of a ball in flight, the exhilaration of a comeback. By immersing itself in baseball lore and mythology, The Natural becomes a celebration of a game that has since turned into a playground of cynicism and money-grubbing. It's very possible not to appreciate a baseball game; the same cannot be said about this production. Taken as a whole, The Natural is a movie of many special moments that add up to a minor epic where the human element is magnified, not diminished, by the spectacle.
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