The Natural (1984)

Rating: A

Dir: Barry Levinson
Star: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger

A decade or more after my original review (below), I now have a lot more knowledge of and appreciation for baseball, and the mythic place it holds in American culture. That really is what propels this movie to the heights, and why it is the finest baseball movie ever: you either get that, or you don’t. And if you don’t, then there’s no hope of redemption [see another one of Roger Ebert’s most wrongheaded-ever reviews for how this film will play for you]. Roy Hobbs (Redford) has the talent to be one of the baseball gods, but an encounter with a deranged young woman derails his career, just as it begins. From there, it’s a long journey back for Hobbs, but he finally gets his chance in the major-leagues with the (fictional) New York Knights, becoming a rookie in his mid-30s.

He’s still good: so good, in fact, he poses a threat to the team’s owner, who is relying upon the team not succeeding, to keep his majority shareholding, and to the local bookie, who hates nothing more than the sure, unfixable thing Hobbs represents. Joseph Campbell would be proud, for this takes almost all the elements from Hero With a Thousand Faces and drops them, almost unchanged, in a baseball context. Hobbs is a classical hero in the Arthurian or Homeric sense, who goes on a quest and must face trials and adversity to reach his goal. As such, it’s radically different from the book on which it was based (that was a good deal more cynical and downbeat), but no less satisfying for that.

Redford is perfect in his role, and the film does a beautiful job of capturing the appeal of baseball. It builds to a one-game playoff where Hobbs must get out of his hospital bed and fight his way to the plate, with the team’s season on the line: sure, it’s the stuff of sports movie cliche, yet the resolution is still entirely satisfying, aided in particular by Randy Newman’s stirring score. It’s one of my favorite scenes in all cinema, and you could certainly make a case for Hobbs to be one of the great cinematic heroes in Hollywood history. He has his flaws, but struggles to overcome them and do what he knows, in his heart, to be the right thing. Did I say “finest baseball movie ever”? It’s a good deal more than that.

[20] On one level, this is your usual shallow baseball film: team of no-hopers fight for the championship. Yet there is rather more to it than this, from the moment when Robert Redford’s farmhand easily strikes out the era’s biggest superstar to win a bet, it’s clear that something special is happening. Even a somewhat curious shooting incident only delays the inevitable by a decade or two before this amazingly gifted “middle-aged rookie” hits the major leagues, an almost mythic figure in status, with a bat hewn from a tree struck by lightning as his Excalibur. This is the stuff of legend, and an excellent supporting cast (Glenn Close plays the Guinevere role, plus you’ve got Joe Don Baker and Michael Madsen in small parts) make it rewarding, probably even for non-fans. B-