A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
“Eight Men Out” is an oddly unfocused movie made of earth tones, sidelong glances and eliptic conversations. It tells the story of how the stars of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team took payoffs from gamblers to throw the World Series, but if you are not already familiar with that story you’re unlikely to understand it after seeing this film.
It’s an insider’s movie, a baseball expert’s film that is hard for the untutored to follow.
Watching the movie, I gained a new appreciation for the old-fashioned Hollywood style of telling a story in which, right near the beginning, we’d get a big closeup of each of the key characters and somebody would call them by name or describe them. You know, something like “See that fella over there? That’s `Shoeless’ Joe Jackson. He’s one of the greatest fielders who ever lived, but they say he doesn’t even know how to write his own name.” By the half-hour mark in “Eight Men Out,” I had little idea who the individual players were, and I wasn’t helped by the fact that many of the actors seemed to resemble each other. It was only days later while reading the press notes that I realized that the character played by the movie’s director, John Sayles, was supposed to be the great sportswriter Ring Lardner. He hangs out throughout the film with a buddy named Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel), who was one of the sportswriters who uncovered the scandal. But how many people can be expected to know that in 1988? On the evidence of the movie itself, Sayles and Terkel are playing a sort of Greek chorus, their heads bent toward each other as they exchange laconic asides on the action.
That’s not a criticism of their performances - it was great to see Terkel chewing his cigar and looking as if he’d seen it all - but of the screenplay. If you’re going to make a movie about a baseball scandal that happened before most of the audience was born, you’d better start by making it understandable and then move on to considerations of art and drama.