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In "Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game," there's an opening exchange between Roger Sharpe (Dennis Boutsikaris) and the unseen director of the "documentary" being filmed. Sharpe scoffs at the director's comment that overturning the decades-long ban on pinball machines in New York City was his "legacy." What he did back in 1976, he says, was "a footnote" at best. He's not wrong. Both statements are true. Written and directed by Austin and Meredith Bragg, "Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game" doesn't play with too heavy a hand, and the trumpet blast of the title is an ironic wink. The Braggs know they're telling a "footnote" story, a sliver of forgotten history, bizarre and ridiculous more than urgent and unjust. The film doesn't burden pinball machines with more meaning than they can stand. "Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game" is strictly low stakes. This is part of its knowing charm.
Set up faux-documentary style, older Roger (Boutsikaris) narrates his own story, showing up in the flashbacks beside his younger self and even interrupting scenes to correct the director's "interpretation." There are moments where the "director" interrupts Roger's narration, particularly when Roger recounts falling in love with Ellen (Crystal Reed). The director wonders if Roger isn't getting "distracted" from the main theme. These meta-interruptions reduce the flame, which works in the film's favor.
The young Roger (Mike Faist), with a bristly mustache so big it has its own area code, discovers the joys of pinball while a student at the University of Wisconsin. He gets married, divorced, fired, and moves to New York with dreams of being a writer. He lands a job with the brand-new men's magazine Gentlemen's Quarterly. At random, he discovers a pinball machine in the lobby of a peep show. The illicit peeping going on behind the curtain holds no appeal. He's here for the pinball machine. This is how he learns that pinball, the activity he pursued with no shame back in Wisconsin, is illegal in the city of New York City due to a very weird, seemingly personal vendetta against the machines by famed Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. (The game was thought to be Mob-owned and run, akin to gambling, and, worst of all, marketed to kids.) If you lived in New York City, where sin ran rampant in the streets, and you wanted to play a legal game of pinball, you had to drive to New Jersey.
This backstory is told in newsreel-type fragments, with scenes of NYPD doing "raids," smashing pinball machines on the streets, newspaper headlines, and LaGuardia giving press conferences, all like it's Chicago fighting organized crime in the 1920s. It's absurd, so Roger decides to write about it for GQ, which he then expands into a book. He tracks down the original manufacturers to interview them, basically gathering evidence for the eventual showdown in 1976.
Alongside all this pinball activity is the romance with Ellen, a single mother, working as a secretary, painting at night, cautious about letting men into her life, and very upfront with Roger about what she wants, needs, and expects. She wants to be married. She wants a father for her 11-year-old son. If Roger isn't up for all of that, then it would be best to just stop now. Roger gets it. The three become a makeshift little family. These scenes are played with attention to detail, and Ellen is as fleshed-out as Roger is (maybe even a little more). Their chemistry is believable and of the everyday regular-person variety: they make each other laugh, they try to be thoughtful, and each is invested in the other person's potential. They mess up on occasion and try to do better, etc. It's nice to see a human-sized romance played human-sized. I imagine this is harder to accomplish than it looks.
Mike Faist made his Broadway debut in 2011's "Newsies," but it was Dear Evan Hansen (2015-2018)—a catching-the-zeitgeist Broadway hit—and his performance as the dead Connor Murphy that made him a star. He was nominated for a Tony Award. (For those who didn't get to see Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, the performance of "Sincerely Me" was captured on video and gives a really good feel for how effective he is onstage, particularly physically.) Of course, the whole world discovered Faist when he showed up in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" as Jet-leader Riff. The buzz around Faist was instant. He had that "something," the charismatic spark drawing all eyes to him. He swaggered into the film as though he was a star already (and indeed, he was, on Broadway at least). "Pinball" gives Faist a chance to hold the center of a film, and he does so admirably.
When the offscreen "director" keeps interrupting the love story, suggesting Roger is getting "distracted," it's part of the ongoing joke of the film, the push-pull between the "director" and his subject. But it's also a set-up that pays off in the final moments of the film. Pinball is why we're all here, but falling in love is not a distraction. What seems to be a footnote is actually a legacy.
Mike Faist as Roger (young)
Crystal Reed as Ellen
Dennis Boutsikaris as Roger Sharpe
Kenneth Tigar as Irving Holzman
Mike Doyle as Jack Haber
Damian Young as Ben Chikofsky
Bryan Batt as Harry Coulianos
Connor Ratliff as Jimmy
Michael Kostroff as Chairman Warner