Described by Bob Costas as a “God-made ballplayer,” Mickey Mantle’s iconic on-field talent ultimately succumbed to injuries, carousing and alcoholism. That latter chapter becomes the centerpiece of this earnest but disappointing HBO documentary, which is either too short to do Mantle justice or too long by half. Set to an overbearingly maudlin score, the Mick’s feats take a back seat to pop psychology about his motivations and unfulfilled potential. Although doubtless must-see TV for baseball fans whose youth indelibly overlapped with Mantle’s legendary heyday, there’s a little too much Lifetime movie here and too few tape-measure home runs.
Indeed, “Mantle” all but races through the New York Yankee slugger’s playing days, sandwiched as they are between his humble beginnings in Oklahoma and his post-baseball decline, during which he profited from the lingering popularity that surrounded him despite being unable to quite fathom it.
Determined to humanize the symbol, the producers interview everyone from Mantle’s family to former teammates to various luminaries (Billy Crystal, Ed Harris, Richard Lewis) who grew up enchanted by his dazzling speed and jaw-dropping power. The production labors, too, to underscore its most significant observation — namely, that “No one in the history of sport ever fit a team, a town, a time, more perfectly.”
Long before Michael Jordan, Mantle’s was the face that launched a thousand ads — an aw-shucks superstar who swatted 536 homers but couldn’t resist drinking deep from all the big-city perks that status conveyed. That fame took a decided toll, leaving behind a broken body, tenuous finances, an excessive fondness for booze and no means to support himself but exploiting a celebrity that he didn’t relish or fully comprehend.
The filmmakers, meanwhile, seem immersed in their own kind of hero worship, having sought to exalt Mantle the man probably beyond what he deserved — much like the sappy “The Babe Ruth Story,” starring William Bendix — at the expense of a more detailed account of what set him apart on the field. And while there is no shortage of places to see Mantle’s baseball exploits, some (such as his towering home run off the facade of Yankee Stadium) are glossed over here and barely explained, leaving it to Lewis to joke about the ball landing on Mars.
Mantle died a decade ago at the age of 63, and there’s little doubt that he was perhaps the greatest raw talent ever to play the game, which is surely enough of a legacy. One suspects that even he, in fact, would scratch his head a bit upon viewing “Mantle,” determined as it appears to look through the eyes of others and magnify his experience into something much more.