At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Natural “84”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Sports Drama/ Stars: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Richard Farnsworth, Joe Don Baker, Darren McGavin, Michael Madsen, John Finnegan, Alan Fudge/ Runtime: 138 minutes

I guess it should be said that some of the greatest films in the wide world of films in the genre of sports…..aren’t exactly about sports (shocking I know). Indeed they may be set on the diamond, the rink, or the end zone, but films such as The Longest Yard, Miracle, and the film we are reviewing today The Natural deal more with perseverance, passion, mountains of heart, and beating the odds all through the lens of sports. Not only that, but through the characters themselves we as audiences also get a look a just what it means to live to the fullest, to excel at something, to live up to the potential that others see in us, and to realize that sometimes glory isn’t about winning the big trophy. Instead it’s about proving to the world that sometimes those who make it to the top might not have the skill to get there, but instead have the heart and determination necessary to achieve the incredible. Indeed, from the director of Rain Man and Sphere, The Natural is an iconic narrative of a champion coming out of the giant pile of discarded potential titans. It should also be pointed out that the story of Roy Hobbs therefore isn’t also one about baseball in the strictest sense, but is about how one man has the heart and the soul to move on from the past and rebuild his life, and to show more to himself than to the rest of the world that life is always, no matter what, still worth living and that everything we do has meaning regardless of the price, the pain, the agony, the time we lose, or what we have to give up to get what we want the most. Suffice it to say then that The Natural is most definitely a film that is significantly better than the total sum of its individual aspects as it manages to provide audiences with an emotional and iconic saga of what it means to be a hero and, most assuredly, of life bundled up in the delightful disguise of that most timeless of sports.

The plot is as follows: The Natural tells the riveting story of a guy by the name of Roy Hobbs. A man who, when he was just a young boy growing up on the family farm, was schooled in the skill of pitching by his dad and proved it wasn’t for nothing by coming to possess a fiery fastball and a heck of a lot of hitting power. However when Roy’s pop sadly dies, the grief-filled young man decides to make himself a baseball bat out of wood from the tree that his dad is buried under and which a bolt of lightning split in half. Thus christening his new bat with the name of “Wonderboy,” our intrepid hero continues his baseball pursuits until the age of 19 when he is summoned for the opportunity to try-out for the Chicago Cubs, but in order to so he must sadly leave his devoted girlfriend Iris back home. On the way there, Roy finds himself being introduced to an extraordinary batter by the name of “The Whammer”, a batter who Roy, against all odds, manages to strike out in three back-to-back pitches while at a stop on the way to Chicago. Yet it is at this moment in time where Roy is on cloud nine when he crosses paths with a mystery woman by the name of Harriet Bird who promptly changes his life forever. Sixteen years later, Roy has managed to claw his way back into the sport he loves so dearly only now he is a hitter and equipped with an ink barely-dry contract to get to play right field for a team known as the New York Knights which are currently in the middle of a slump. A slump that is so bad that the team manager’s future both in the game and in keeping a job is defined on if the Knights are able to snag a pennant this upcoming season. Suffice it to say then that he is quite reluctant to say the least to play this slightly over-the-hill rookie. Yet when Roy is finally given a chance to show what he can do, though the fact that the team’s main outfielder “Bump” Bailey finds himself tragically dying in a freak on-field accident certainly doesn’t hurt, he is able to lead the team to a phenomenal change of fortune. However, if Roy wants a chance to get the team to the pennant, and by the same token true greatness, he will have to make a stand against the deadly trio that is the team’s highly corrupt majority shareholder, known only as “The Judge”, his main henchwoman Memo Paris, and a ruthless yet determined gambler by the name of Gus Sands. Only then can Roy give the team and himself the true greatness that they both have been yearning for after all this time….

Now very much in the same vein as the equally as terrific film about life and baseball that is Field of Dreams, The Natural manages to come across as a wonderful mixture of life and baseball with a dash of fantasy thrown in for good measure. However, also like Field of Dreams, this film contains a just under-the-surface ingredient which takes a look at a much deeper philosophical purpose for our main character that extends beyond baseball. Indeed in The Natural, the narrative isn’t particularly likely, but never is that an ailment to the movie or what it is trying to convey. Indeed the triumphs of the main character are cheered and even to some degree expected not just because they give the audience something to cheer about, but because they also strengthen the deeper concepts at play. Indeed it ultimately is the courage and ultimate embrace of integrity on the part of our protagonist even when being faced with temptations of different sorts off the field which are just as integral here as anything he does on the field. Indeed a man with the mistakes in his past that Roy Hobbs had could’ve easily sunk him and led him to fade into obscurity. However instead of letting that happen, Roy chooses instead to accept who he is and then fight to reacquire his position in life as a successful and honorable person even if it meant switching things up in the sport he held as dearly as the love of his life. Thus I think it is safe to say that his triumphs that we witness in this film not only come from his natural abilities as a baseball player, but also from a resounding strength in both heart and spirit to always keep fighting especially when it comes to the most difficult challenges we as people face in life no matter where they are located be it on a stage with the eyes of the world upon us or in our more quiet, retrospective moments where the only person we are in conflict with is ourselves.

Now even though this film does have a few darker ingredients at play during its runtime, The Natural regardless manages to still showcase itself as quite a wholesome and even in some respects ageless film that uses the sport of baseball as a representation of what it means to be successful in one’s life. Indeed the primary conflict in this film not only originates from a man’s incredible attempt to reacquire the glory that was unjustly stripped from him through only the fault perhaps of his naivety and innocent sense of youthful hubris, but also to reacquire and embrace wholeheartedly the good things that can make up one’s life and also to put others before himself. Indeed although he is looked down on, threatened, and tempted in every sense of the word, our hero is still able to succeed not just because of his potent hitting skill, but through the honesty that makes up the lining of his very soul. A fact that then enables this movie to be a tale that is equal parts scoreboard win and win for the ingenuity of the human spirit. Indeed this truly is a film which gets better with not only repeat viewings, but with age and with the increased comprehension a person acquires as they learn more and more about how the world truly works. Not only that, but by working with a trinity of distinct genres, this film also is that rare film which actually offers something that a multitude of fans, baseball fans or not, can embrace and enjoy. Indeed just the narrative of an individual finding life coming full circle is something that really makes this a film with the power to be able to speak to an audience that is searching. Not exactly for instruction or to know what their purpose is meant to be, but instead to reassure them that Lady Fate and Lady Destiny sometimes have peculiar ways in getting a person exactly where they are meant to be in life.

Finally it should also be noted that in addition to being one of the more equal parts heartwarming and engaging films that I have had the pleasure of seeing, this is also a beautifully created film from a technical point of view as well. This starts with the dynamic combo that is film helmer Barry Levinson and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Indeed through this powerhouse duo’s work, we as an audience are given a film that gives off a vibe that is both magic and seemingly mystical in nature due not only to the gripping baseball moments, but also because they manage to capture beautifully the little details of the time period in which the film is taking place, and by providing us with quite a few shots that manage to brilliantly showcase for an audience just what the story is trying to tell us as well as if not better than the spoken dialogue. Ultimately though it is the incredibly down-to-earth and integrity laced performances from what is still one of the finer casts for a sports film that manage to fully showcase what exactly this film is all about. This starts with acting legend Robert Redford’s fantastic performance as Roy Hobbs. Indeed Hobbs, we are able to discern, is something of an intriguing individual in that not only does he try to be a hero on the field, but also off the field as well. A fact, coincidentally, which is made readily apparent as we watch him fight not only for himself, but for his devoted manager, the team itself, and just his morals as he tries to bring the team out from under the immoral team owner’s thumb as well as the bottom of the rankings barrel. Indeed this is truly an iconic performance from an actor who, over the course of his career, managed to give us his fair share, and then some, of them. We also get wonderful work from terrific actress Glenn Close in her role of the now-slightly older Iris aka the love of Roy’s life. Indeed Close does terrific in bringing to life an incredibly supportive and loving woman who, despite all the years that have passed, is still number one to Roy and who, upon reuniting with him, manages to give him a reminder of all that was, and could once again be, amazing in life no matter if he is playing baseball or not. Finally it should also be noted that extending past the wonderful work done by both Redford and Close is a phenomenal group of both name and character actors including Robert Duvall, Joe Don Baker, Kim Basinger, Barbara Hershey, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Michael Madsen, Robert Prosky, and Darren McGavin. Indeed not only do each and every one of these truly talented individuals all do terrific work in their respective parts, but they all, in their own way, manage to all define for the audience just what exactly this film is about be it through their character’s arc, traits, personality, etc. or through their impeccable look and feeling as if they belong in the period the film is set in. Finally I don’t think any review of this film would be truly complete if it didn’t bring up to you dear reader one of the best movie musical scores ever brought to the film by none other than Randy Newman (that’s right; the same guy who gave us music for both the opening to Monk and the Toy Story films). Indeed both triumphant and resounding in equal measure, this score is just the absolute best companion the finished film could have hoped for as not only does reinforce the jaw-dropping visuals we are seeing, but from a musical perspective, it strengthens the core concepts as beautifully as the cast or the work done by Levinson and Deschanel. In fact I would go so far as to say that this score deserves to be regarded as one of the finer scores NOT done by someone named either James Horner, John Williams, or Ennio Morricone that I have ever heard.

All in all The Natural is a phenomenal story about just how incredible the human spirit truly can be plus it comes attached with an integrity-laced message for people that as long as your motivation is good and your intentions decent and upstanding then it is never too late for you to make your dreams and desires come to fruition. Indeed is it any wonder then that this film is frequently cited as one of the best sports movies ever? Yet like so many of the best in this iconic movie genre, it simply utilizes the sport of choice as nothing more than a background for the deeper themes at work to play and thrive in. Indeed it truly is a novel mix to locate in a film that is so engaging both from a thematic and a superficial perspective as this one is; it is also because of this that The Natural  also manages to hold up amazing well and is easily watchable time and time again due to this gift of mixing together the sport of baseball as well as just the game of life together into an amazing story of one man getting at long last the incredible opportunity to find the glory that he has been seeking his whole life: both on and off the field. Indeed aided immensely by fantastic work from a terrific director and cinematography department, incredible performances from a superb cast at the top of their game, and a truly memorable musical score, The Natural is a genuinely great film and arguably one of the best baseball centric films ever made. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Natural “84” a solid 4 out of 5.