Having tackled Enron, Elliot Spitzer and torture in Iraq, Alex Gibney takes on another national enigma, the Chicago Cubs, in “Catching Hell,” which largely tells the sad story of Steve Bartman, whose perceived interference with a foul ball during Game 6 of the 2003 National League playoffs incurred the wrath of an entire city. ESPN will air the pic as part of its “30 for 30” series of films on sports by unlikely directors, but the film is accessible — and funny — enough to attract a wide aud, sports-minded or not. Solidly and sparklingly constructed, the doc seems at first like an odd coupling of artist and subject, and is partly intended as such. But the issues swirling around Bartman’s story — scapegoating, groupthink, media irresponsibility — are all in the Oscar winner’s wheelhouse. And though “Catching Hell” feels like it takes a few extra innings before heading to the showers, the tale is so entertainingly told it can be forgiven for being overlong, and at the same time presenting a relatively limited examination of a subject Gibney might easily have turned into a 12-part series.
It’s Oct. 4, 2003, Wrigley Field, the Cubs are leading the Florida Marlins 3-0 in Game 6 of the National League Championship series (which Chicago is one game from wrapping up, to go to its first World Series in 48 years). Left fielder Moises Alou attempts a leaping catch of a foul ball hit by Luis Castillo. Bartman is just one of several fans who try to catch the ball, unable to even see Alou below them, but it is Bartman who blocks the ball from entering Alou’s mitt. Suddenly, the dynamics of the game shift. The recharged Marlins score eight runs in the inning, go on to win the game and the pennant, and prevent the Cubs from having the chance to win their first World Series since 1908. Long before most of that happens, Bartman has become Public Enemy No. 1.
Gibney recreates, via the game broadcast, the press reportage and the memories of players and fans, the incendiary atmosphere inside and outside Wrigley. Alou, who magnanimously said Bartman didn’t keep him from catching the ball in a 2008 interview, here maintains he could have had it. Gibney breaks the scene down via computer, and it certainly seems that way.
Crucially, the director connects the venomous outrage that immediately followed Bartman’s innocent error with the strange dynamics of Chicago baseball. More so even than Gibney’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, the Cubs have, over more than a century of championship-free ball, engendered in their fans a feeling of misery and cursedness (particularly considering the Red Sox’s recent successes). “Catching Hell” makes quite clear, thanks in large part to producer-director Matt Liston and the outtakes from his own doc, “Chasing October,” that the fans in Wrigley expected something to go wrong, just as it had so many times before. Bartman, in his glasses, sweatshirt and headphones (actually listening to a broadcast of the game at the time) — simply whipped a stadium full of masochists into a frenzy.
Still, the questions are numerous: Why, for instance, is Bartman the devil, and not Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who bobbled a crucial double-play ball immediately after the interference episode? To draw a parallel, Gibney revisits his own nightmare, the ground ball through the legs of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner in the game that would have won the ’86 World Series — Boston’s first in 68 years at the time — against the New York Mets. Buckner, too, was vilified, and his uncharacteristic error has come to define him in the minds of millions — thanks in large part to relentless replays on sports TV (one of the villains of Gibney’s piece, though as this is an ESPN project, he doesn’t overstate it). Buckner, for his part, is the personification of class.
Bartman? He, too, was able to put things in proper persepective, much more so than the people at Wrigley Field during that woeful Game 6, or the callers to sports radio or even some of the people whom Gibney interviews.
The nice thing about sports is that there’s always a tomorrow, a chance to wipe the slate clean, and the docu is careful to include this point. Much of what happens in “Catching Hell,” however, is indelible.
Production values are super, notably Alison Ellwood’s editing.