This week's Movie Monday selection is the 2011 documentary Catching Hell!
I normally don't cover documentaries on Movie Mondays, but sometimes one of them is so unusual and so captivating I can't help but talk about it. And that's definitely the case with Catching Hell.
Directed by master documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side), Catching Hell is part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series of docs covering all different sports-centric stories. I had heard that this series was unusually good, that ESPN clearly really wanted to come up with real documentary films, not glorified "Behind the Music"-style TV specials. Catching Hell was one that I had heard about, so when it popped up on Netflix WI I watched it immediately:
Catching Hell is, on the surface, the story of Steve Bartman, the infamous Cubs fan who reached out during a Cubs/Marlins playoff game, seemingly interfering with the ball being caught by Cubs outfielder Moises Alou. This happens all the time every Baseball season, so what made this moment so special?
The story of Steve Bartman is almost the definitive case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To this point, the Cubs were (it was assumed) on their way to defeating the Marlins and then the World Series. But after Bartman got his hands on the ball, knocking it into the hands of another fan, it all seemed to fall apart for the Cubs: the Marlins scored a series of hits, with Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez making an error and ruining a near-certain double play. The Marlins ended up scoring eight runs that inning, winning the game, and then going on to win Game 7, ending the Cubs' only chance at a World Series appearance in almost seventy years. Despite all the catastrophic errors on the field, Chicago fans aimed their fury at Bartman, making him the scapegoat for the Cubs' collapse.
Gibney starts the movie with the story of another scapegoat, Red Sox First Baseman Bill Buckner, who infamously let a simple ground ball go through his legs during the 1986 World Series, leading to the New York Mets eventual win:
Catching Hell shows that the same curious events took place in 1986 that repeated themselves in Chicago in 2003: the fans' unwillingness to see what really happened in front of their eyes, instead choosing to pin all the blame on one person, whose life was almost ruined in the process. Buckner received death threats and endless teasing, so much so he and his family had to leave Boston.
In the case of Steve Bartman, the anger directed at him played out in real time, on live television. Director Gibney manages to track down nearly everyone who was there that night, including players, TV producers, even some fellow fans who were sitting around Bartman and also tried to catch the soon-to-be-famous ball:
Using modern filmmaking techniques (including digitally removing everyone else from the scene, leaving only Bartman and the ball), Gibney examines the moment as if was the Zapruder film: frame by frame, moment by moment, trying to prove conclusively one way or the other whether Bartman is even guilty of the "crime" he was instantly convicted for.
Two amateur filmmakers happened to be at that game, sitting in the same part of the park as Bartman, and videotaped it all go down, and we can see the creeping sense of violence hanging in the air. One fan walks by and throws a beer at Bartman, splashing him right in the face:
We then get to meet that guy, in 2011, and he is (barely) apologetic for his douchebag behavior, still seemingly holding his grudge towards Bartman. We also meet one of the Cubs' security team, who explains that she was in charge of getting the young man out of the park, under cover, lest real violence break out. She recalls, nearly in tears, talking with Bartman at her apartment, realizing how out of control it all got, so fast, and how his life would never be the same.
And it wasn't. The next day, a newspaper revealed Bartman's address(!), and cops had to show up to keep people away. Bartman, ironically a Little League coach in his spare time, had to hide inside his home while the media gathered. His Little League team shows up, too, carrying signs supporting him and asking everyone to leave their coach alone. Bartman releases a statement to the press, expressing his horror at what he did, but even that doesn't quiet things down: people are mad. Why?
To be fair, Gibney doesn't have a lot of answers to this question, why are people so determined to pin all the blame on one person. Is it easier to deal with disappointment and hurt if there's just one thing to focus all that emotion on? Is there something about the human psyche that needs us to be able to point to one person, or cause, and say "It's their fault"?
Steve Bartman does not appear in Catching Hell, and the movie points out that he has almost completely disappeared, even in this age of omnipresent social media. He stills lives in Chicago, as we learn through an ESPN reporter who tracked him down, only to essentially be rebuffed.
The film winds back to where it started, with Bill Buckner, who returned to Boston for a special event and was greeted as a returning hero. A generation or two has passed since the 1986 World Series, and it seems that Boston was ready--eager--to patch up old wounds give the man the due he deserves. Maybe someday, Steve Bartman will similarly be able to go back to a normal life.
I don't think you need to be a sports fan to enjoy Catching Hell, though if you're a baseball fan (as I am) you'll probably get a little more out of it. In any case, Alex Gibney is such a natural storyteller that he after making documentaries about such titanic issues--Enron, the Iraq War--that he can turn his attention toward a seemingly trivial topic such as this and craft a compelling, almost gripping, tale. Highly recommended.
Fun Fact: In 2003, I was doing illustration work for a company based in Chicago. Around late October, they came to me and asked me to produce a piece for their company's annual Christmas card. I had been following the Bartman story and had seen the name of the company he worked for, which was the same as the company I was working with. At the end of an email about the job, I asked my contact if, indeed, this was the same company and did Steve Bartman work there? My contact informed me that, yes, he did, and at the time, it was really, really awkward around the office!