Much like the Boston Red Sox, the movie Game 6 hauls so much baggage that triumph seems nearly impossible. It’s akin to being down three games to none to the Yankees in a best-of-seven series. Lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong odds. But somehow ... .
The film was written by the novelist Don DeLillo, a poster child for postmodernism, yet it’s primarily an affectionate fable about baseball.
It concerns a fan of the Boston Red Sox, yet it was written by a New Yorker. (Heresy!)
It takes place on October 25, 1986 — a day that will live in infamy — yet is softened, leavened, and to a degree voided by 2004. (Yes, we have a history, me and the Red Sox. Have I told you about my condition?)
As much as it’s about baseball, it’s not about baseball. It’s about the theater, and critics, and inevitable failure, and asbestos, and family, and taxis, and hope, and brain parasites, and allegiance, and fear.
And as as much as it’s not about baseball, it’s about baseball.
It’s insistently literary, and also clunky, silly, awkward, and ridiculous. My brain says that it’s a mess — disjointed and forced — yet it has the depth, rhymes, and shadings of light art.
Directed by Michael Hoffman, Game 6 covers one particularly eventful day in the life of playwright Nicky Rogan. Nicky’s new play is opening on the same night as the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Should Nicky go to the official debut of his play, which will likely be savaged by the New York Times’ brutal theater critic? Or should he watch his Red Sox — with the chance to win the team’s first Series since 1918 — play the Mets?
The way a fun bit of backstage comedy resonates throughout the movie — both obviously and subtly — demonstrates how carefully crafted Game 6 is. One of the play’s actors is struggling to remember one line — one line! — and the joke is that he’s merely supposed to repeat what was just said to him: “This could be it.”
The sentence holds obvious meaning for Nicky and every other Red Sox fan on this fateful day, but there’s a secondary joke hidden there that also serves to foreshadow the game’s events. How could the actor forget a line that’s just been said to him? How could Nicky find hope — This could be it! — in this eternally hopeless team? Both the actor and Nicky need to be beaten over the head with the obvious, to be reminded of what they already know. And Nicky only needs to remember his own words: The Red Sox are “always winning. Until they lose.”
Michael Keaton’s manic nature is a perfect match for the character of Nicky, a guy who hops out of taxis whenever he sees somebody he knows. He’s talky and gregarious, and one of the movie’s throwaway touches speaks to the writer’s life: Whenever Nicky gets into a taxi, Hoffman offers a shot of the driver’s license, because that’s exactly the level of attention a playwright would have, even one as itchy as Nicky.
The film shares Nicky’s distracted nature, and it only gains a semblance of focus when the play and the game begin. But even then — despite the inspired way DeLillo and Hoffman handle the Bill Buckner bit — it never quite coalesces.
DeLillo tries to force order with a conclusion that’s at once cute, contrived, inevitable, and dumb, but its primary sin is that it’s too neat. The confrontation to which the entire movie has been building is defused with a cliché that might hold true in many situations, but not this one.
Yes, shared misery (or joy) can overcome many obstacles, and shared baseball in particular can connect two people who’ve never met, but the suspension of disbelief required by Game 6 is too great.
Perhaps DeLillo’s point is that given what happened in Shea Stadium on October 25, 1986, anything is possible. But pigs didn’t fly that night, and Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t make passionate love. A ball went through the legs of a gimpy first baseman.
Yet the closing speaks to an earnest optimism in Game 6, a spirit that smooths over many of the movie’s rough spots.
Both films have writers as their central characters. Both prominently feature chance. Smoke starts with a discussion of the 1986 New York Mets. Both feature wayward daughters and strained relations with former partners. Both live in New York. Both have a major character without a home. Both have antagonists that strain credulity. Both have an idealized view of race relations.
And both settle on the idea that we can forge strong bonds through simple, inconsequential things: a story, or a baseball team. Hope permeates them.
Smoke came out in 1995, and — even though it was filmed in 2004 and released in 2006 — Game 6 was written in the late 1990s. One can easily imagine Auster fondly recalling his first foray into filmmaking, and planting the seed that became this movie.
DeLillo’s movie isn’t as good as Auster’s — fundamentally, Smoke earned its gentle coda while Game 6’s is imposed upon it — but there’s a lot going on under its busy surface and painfully blunt conceit.
Using Game 6 of the 1986 World Series as the hook for a movie seems cheap and, for many of us, mean. But on reflection, it’s a great metaphor. The grand irony of Game 6 is that as emblematic as it was of the misery of Red Sox fans, the world didn’t end — even in a baseball sense.
Game 6 begat Game 7 two days later. The Red Sox fucked that up, also, to lose the World Series, but that’s not terribly important.
The key is that Game 6 represents potentially penultimate failure — with the final/fatal failure yet to come.
However unjustified or unlikely, there is still hope.