Natural, The (United States, 1984)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

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 (more on a significant mistake later), 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.

Roy Hobbs never lived. But, like the Mighty Casey, he's as widely known to baseball fans as Babe Ruth, Cy Young, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. In fact, Hobbs is closer to a comic book superhero or the protagonist of a gallant fable than to any man who ever had success between the lines. Not only can Hobbs play, but he has character and principles - two things in increasingly short supply with athletes. He's the best parts of Ruth, Gehrig, and Ty Cobb all rolled into one, without the womanizing, drinking, and racism. Hobbs isn't perfect - his flaws become important to the movie's storyline - but he's the kind of individual I wouldn't mind as a role model for my son.

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).

The overriding theme of The Natural is that of redemption (admittedly, a common theme not only in baseball movies, but in all sports films). One swing of the bat can make a goat into a hero or a hero into a goat, and the production (or the lack thereof) of a lifetime can mean little compared to the success or failure in the clutch. Ask Billy Buckner, who had a wonderful career, but will always be known for the ball that rolled between his legs during the 1986 Mets/Red Sox World Series. Or Joe Carter, whose solid career was capped off by the series-ending home run that gave the Toronto Blue Jays the victory over the Philadephia Phillies in 1993. Baseball is all about redemption, and how every batter gets 500 to 600 tries at it in each season. The Natural focuses on the redemption of Roy Hobbs, who figures out that he has something to prove - and sets out to do it. And, as he rounds the bases amidst a shower of sparks in a scene that could only happen in a Hollywood-born field of dreams, he knows he has accomplished his goal and fulfilled his dream.

The Natural has the quality of a fable. It romanticizes everything about baseball, even the darker aspects (gambling, temptation, corruption). The movie exists within the realm of the tall tale, where magic enhances the edges of reality. A different filmmaker might have used restraint in showing Hobbs' three great home runs (his debut, the one in which he breaks out of his slump, and his final at-bat), but Barry Levinson risks appearing too corny by embracing, in a no-holds barred manner, the exuberance of grandeur. The home runs are the stuff of legends. In its simplest form, a home run is just a ball that travels a long distance. In The Natural, it's a moment of sheer ecstasy - a shot heard round the world that shatters clocks, collides with a lightning bolt, or knocks out the lights with a fireworks-like display. There are times when we demand restraint from movies; those moments in The Natural are not among them. Take away the majesty of those home runs and the movie does not satisfy in the same fundamental way.

The movie deviates significantly from its source material, Bernard Malamud's novel. The characters' names and some of the events are the same, but the overall thrust is radically different. In the novel, Hobbs is portrayed as being more pathetic than heroic. The tone is downbeat, not nostalgic. And, at the culmination of the final at-bat, instead of a shower of glittering sparks, there are echoes of "Casey at the Bat". This is a case of a novel and a movie standing separate, yet complementing each other. The Natural is not a pictorial regurgitation of the book. Instead, it takes Malamud's ideas and transforms them into something that works cinematically. A rigorously faithful adaptation of the novel might have been too grim to sit through. It certainly would not have offered the catharsis that comes from Levinson's motion picture.

Robert Redford is the ideal Hobbs in this version. Earlier incarnations of the story had been offered to Nick Nolte, Michael Douglas, and Jon Voight, but the Roger Towne screenplay came to Redford, who accepted the role and brought Levinson (Diner) in to direct. Redford's innate charm and good looks serve him well. We believe in him as a middle-aged rookie who still has something to prove. We see it in his eyes, his mannerisms, and the way he carries himself. And Redford also convinces as a baseball player - no small feat (as anyone who has attempted to play the game will attest).

The supporting cast includes Robert Duvall as an ace sports reporter who believes his stories can make or break a player's career. Max Mercy is neither a hero nor a villain; he's a mercenary who lives for the story. At one point, he claims that it's his duty to protect the game, but that statement is subterfuge. For him, baseball is secondary to the byline. Of a more ambiguous character than Max is Darren McGavin's Gus Sands, a shadowy figure who doesn't like baseball as much as he likes betting on baseball. The game is just a means by which he can engage in contests of chance. Robert Prosky's Judge is like a spider in a dark web (he doesn't like the light, and, considering his ethics, who can blame him) - corruption personified. To balance out the Judge, we have the "pure" baseball men - Pop and his faithful bench coach, Red (Richard Farnsworth). For these two, winning and the game are everything. Brimly and Farnsworth - both gruff, grandfatherly types - have no trouble sliding into these roles and bringing the characters to life.

Then there are the women, and they are more symbols than individuals. First there's the mysterious Harriet, played with black widow-like intensity by Barbara Hershey, dressed in black. Glenn Close is Iris, the old girlfriend who surfaces in time to break Hobbs' batting slump. She appears in Wrigley Field bathed in light and wearing a white dress with a hat on her head that looks like a halo. Finally, there's Memo the temptress, whose motives, while murky, are not entirely evil. She's acting in consort with Gus and the Judge, but seems to have some genuine affection for Hobbs. Basinger, who did this part near the beginning of her career, shows legitimate promise as an actress - it would be another decade (in L.A. Confidential) before that potential would re-surface. As Harriet is the agent of Hobbs' fall and Memo leads him astray, so Iris proves to be his angel - the one who guides him back to the true path and ultimately proves to be his salvation, both on and off the field.

From a baseball perspective, The Natural does a good job evoking the feel of the game during the '20s and '30s, when so many things were different, yet when so much was the same. However, there is a significant gaffe in the middle of the film that many viewers may miss because the film's drama is absorbing enough to obscure it. When the Knights are visiting Chicago, Hobbs belts his game-winning home run in the ninth inning, and everyone clears the stadium - but the Cubs still have another at-bat. Then, on the next day, Hobbs hits four home runs - all in the bottom of the inning. This isn't possible unless he has been traded to the Cubs.

Technical quibbles aside, The Natural is pure magic - the most satisfying baseball film yet to be committed to celluloid. Levison, who would go on to direct films like Avalon, Bugsy, and i>Wag the Dog, finds the perfect tone - reverent enough to make us smile, but not so reverent that we start to snigger. The heroic score, by perennial Oscar nominee Randy Newman, is one of his best. And the cinematography, by Caleb Deschanel, contains moments of visual poetry. 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.

Natural, The (United States, 1984)

Ranked #95 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 1984-05-11
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1