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'Eight Men Out'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1988


John Sayles
Charlie Sheen;
John Cusack;
Christopher Lloyd;
D.B. Sweeney;
David Strathairn;
Michael Lerner;
Clifton James;
John Sayles;
Studs Terkel
Parental guidance suggested

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If John Sayles were a ballplayer, they'd call him Lefty -- not for his pitching arm but for his politics. The devoutly liberal filmmaker's political point of view is certain. It's his dramatic focus that sometimes gets fuzzy, as in the diffuse baseball drama "Eight Men Out."

Sayles gives virtually everyone involved in the Chicago "Black Sox" scandal -- bat boy to baseball commissioner -- a say in this overcrowded movie. Based on Eliot Asinof's 1963 best seller, the movie documents every last detail of the White Sox conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series. The names and faces run together like the hum-babe-hum-babe of dugout chatter.

It doesn't help that the cast -- Brat Pack 2: We Came to Act -- looks as alike as American cheese slices in their White Sox uniforms. David Strathairn is an exception, an older, darker actor who has a meatier part as the pitcher Eddie Cicotte. And John Cusack stands out as Buck Weaver, a third baseman who maintains his innocence when the eight alleged cheaters are brought to trial.

D.B. Sweeney, Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, Don Harvey, James Read and Perry Lang have only Smurfesque characteristics to set them apart -- the dumb one, the dapper one, the strong one and so on. And that's not counting Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp and Jace Alexander as their honest teammates.

Who's on first indeed.

The gamblers, their goons and the go-betweens who pay off the players are more intriguing and easier to sort out, as are the sportswriters (Sayles as Ring Lardner and Studs Terkel as Hugh Fullerton) who discover the scam. These characters are a catalogue of missed opportunities: Lardner and Fullerton might have been baseball's Woodward and Bernstein, giving the movie suspense, focus and momentum. Kid Gleason, the manager, played by the excellent John Mahoney, would have been another natural.

But instead Sayles gives us "Matewan" at Comiskey Park. It's wage earners versus employers, his same old pitch. No curveballs, no spitballs, no surprises. He blames the whole affair on team owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James), so stingy that he paid his pennant-winners' bonuses in stale champagne. The fat old tightwad is Scrooge and Sayles is Dickens with a Louisville Slugger. Comiskey and his fat-cat friends boast and toast the team with bubbly. "If he's such a fan, why doesn't he pay a living wage?" whispers Lardner to a colleague.

"Eight Men Out" serves as an allegory for the decline of the American hero, the Sox standing in for Vanessa Williams, Jim Bakker, Oliver North, Gary Hart and enough others to field a major league team. In that sense, this gloomy-looking period piece has something to say. The Black Sox never played again, banned forever from the game. Of course, in real life, you serve your time, write a book, and next thing you know, you're doing a guest spot on "Miami Vice."

Eight Men Out, at area theaters, is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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