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VEB Movie Club: Bang the Drum Slowly

In anticipation of Opening Day, we watched a movie neither of us have seen

Robert De Niro In ‘Bang The Drum Slowly’ Photo by Paramount/Getty Images

Gabe (4): Welcome to VEB Movie Club. This is admittedly a bit of a weird time to bring this feature back, a feature conceived during the pandemic when it was not clear when baseball was coming back. Appropriately enough, the idea to bring it back was also conceived when it was not clear when baseball would be coming back. But before anyone even agreed to watch a movie, the season had a starting date. But at the same time, this is also the best time to be watching a baseball movie so why scrap that idea? The week before Opening Day? Gets you right in the baseball fever.

Heather, neither of us have seen Bang the Drum Slowly, but you’ve read the book a few years back. I did not read the book. I can honestly say I rarely go into a movie this blind. I have no idea what this is about aside from it being a baseball movie. I have this vague notion that someone dies in the movie, but I could just be confusing it with another sports’ movie around that same time that I haven’t seen, Brian’s Song (which yes readers I know is a football movie). I’m guessing you liked the book well enough to want to see the movie, hence why this is the selection.

Heather (lil): Since you mentioned you were going into this movie pretty much blind I won’t spoil anything for you. I will say that I unfortunately have a terrific memory and know everything that’s going to happen based on reading the book (if anyone’s interested in reading my breakdown you can find it here). What I will tell you is that the book is considered one of the best sports books of all time and is the second in a series of four books in this universe written by author Mark Harris. Charles Poore of the New York Times wrote of it “Bang the Drum Slowly is the finest baseball novel that has appeared since we all began to compare baseball novels”. Harris is also credited with writing the screenplay — he is the only credited writer I could find for the film. This doesn’t necessarily mean a product as good as the book is, but I have high hopes.

I did find though that Roger Greenspun of New York Times wrote “It is one of those rare instances in which close adaptation of a good book has resulted in possibly an even better movie,” in his review of the film so I feel my instinct might be proven correct.

*We both watch the 98 minute movie. Heather finishes first, I finish shortly after

lil: I guess first and foremost I should say that I quite liked that movie. For what it was — a story of a dying man’s last summer — it wasn’t overly sentimental (honestly I found it pretty funny). In fact for much of the movie only a few people knew the truth of Bruce Pearson‘s condition. I think that was kind of the point. There was a line I quite liked that sort of addressed this. Bruce says “Everybody’d be nice to you if they knew you were dying,” to which Arthur (in the book I believe his nickname is actually “Author” because he wrote a book, but the subtitles of the movie and my ears both think they were saying “Arthur” in the movie ) replies “Everybody knows everybody’s dying; that’s why people are as good as they are.” I can’t tell if that was meant to be sarcasm and a commentary on how perhaps we should be kinder to each other, but that was my initial reading of it, particularly in the context of the movie where once the team does start being kinder to each other they play better. I find that to be a lovely, yet surprisingly soft and delicate message for a “sports movie“, and it works perfectly with the theme of the movie where in order to succeed in their sport the men need to learn to be softer and kinder to each other

I was also surprised how well it held up. There were a few moments that dated the movie that do not hold up to viewing with a modern lense, but I think the overall this message holds true today. I couldn’t stop thinking of modern parallels for a different situations the characters were in.

The last thing I really have in my notes is how surprised I was at Robert de Niro‘s portrayal of Bruce Pearson. It’s not the type of role I think of him for, but I felt like he really transformed into it. I thought for sure I was just only going to be able to see de Niro, but I forgot that it was even him.

4: I didn’t even know Deniro was in this movie! That’s how little info I had. This is Mean Streets era Deniro! Older Deniro and younger Deniro may as well be two different actors. It’s not a huge physical transformation, but he’s just a lot more physical in his performance and has great charisma while making it seem effortless. I was a fan of his performance if you couldn’t tell. And this is one of his “easier” roles so to speak, at least during this era of his career.

I found this a fascinating look at pre-free agency baseball. Obviously, it’s not what the movie is about, but a lot of the background stuff rings really true. The star pitcher holding out for more money. That was way more common before free agency became a thing, because it was the only tool they had. And he ended up using it as a ruse to get Bruce on the team with him, but I suspect if Bruce never had that diagnosis, he’d still try to hold out for more money. The stud prospect gets kept down when it’s at least implied that he’s ready now. That still happens now of course. Is that what you mean by modern parallels?

lil: It was exactly what I was thinking. I couldn’t help but think of the lockout when the veteran player goes up Wiggen while he was watching spring training and advises him to not watch while he is holding out because they’ll see he will want to play and use it against him.

4: The baseball scenes were... not the most convincing. For starters, anytime an actor was close enough to be seen, the action was obviously set at a spring training complex during the regular season with very obvious fake crowd noise. I thought Moriarty had a convincing enough pitching motion. And Deniro, good god was he 5’2, 100 pounds in this movie? He is so scrawny. He appears to have precisely zero muscles. This dude could not be a catcher in 1973 or now really. Imagine him trying to block the plate back then, when people like Pete Rose were trying to destroy you. I legitimately can’t believe how small he looks

lil: In the movie he says he’s 5‘11“ or something like that! I didn’t mind that he looked scrawny because he was supposed to be sick but I also noticed how his uniforms seem to drip off of him. I actually thought during the movie the baseball scenes didn’t look too bad — at one point I was wondering if they were using actual clips from games — but that was during the montage of baseball plays that showed they were playing better, not the close ups.

For a baseball movie that does seem to have a lot of baseball in it, there’s actually very little baseball played in it, if that makes sense.

4: Honestly, it was mostly just the distraction of noticing that they were obviously playing at a spring training complex that affected the realism more than the actual play - which they smartly seemed to use actual clips of real life baseball players whenever they could. And the game play in the last game is the best “baseball” by the actors. But yeah I just noticed the very distinct spring training background and once I noticed that, it became clear when the actors were being used and when it was a clip from a real life game. But that’s a me problem, and didn’t affect the quality of the movie for me.

According to Wikipedia, they used both Shea and Yankee Stadium as filming locations, but I’m guessing they weren’t allowed to actually play on the field. Granted, it’s also not a real team (even though it clearly looks like the Yankees), but you never see the actual crowd when they shoot at the spring training location

Two more baseball-related notes: hearing a .260, .270 average described as not great is funny, and maybe a modern viewer will take that at face value for how much average has changed, but that would actually be fantastic for a catcher in 1973 when the average for every position was .257. Funny how perceptions work. And it was kind of odd to see Deniro’s father just hanging in the dugout near the end.

lil: I thought the same thing when I heard that! If Yadi was hitting .270 that would be amazing. The scene near the end when Bruce gets on the airplane was another one that drew my attention to the fact that this movie takes place in the 70s.

Overall I just really liked the movie. I thought it did the book justice. I felt like the acting was really good. And I felt it told an impactful story without being ham-fisted or overdramatic. I also just thought it was really funny. I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny as it was, but there were more than a few times where I laughed out loud.

4: I concur. I was pretty impressed with the team interactions which seemed accurate enough (a cleaned up version anyway). It isn’t my favorite baseball movie, but it’s up there. I’ll finish with an apt quote from Roger Ebert in his 4-star review: “And then, as the movie’s shape begins to be visible, we realize it’s not so much a sports movie as a movie about those elusive subjects, male bonding and work in America. That the males play baseball and that sport is their work is what makes this the ultimate baseball movie; never before has a movie considered the game from the inside out.”