America’s favorite pastime is one of the best things about summer for a lot of people. There’s a thrill of excitement when you enter a baseball stadium, grab a hot dog and sit down to watch nine innings from your favorite team. The only thing that comes close to that exhilarating rush at the ballpark is watching a great movie about the sport. Through the years Hollywood has given audiences classics that are fun to revisit from time to time, such celebrated pieces of cinema that include: FIELD OF DREAMS, THE NATURAL and BULL DURHAM. Well, you can add another film to the list of notables with the Billy Crystal directed film 61*.
Set during the summer of 1961, 61* follows the amazing story of two New York Yankees, Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane), who are on pace to break the infamous home run record (60 homers in one season) set by baseball legend Babe Ruth. These two legends in their own right play through the season with the shadow of Ruth hanging over their heads as well as a group of reporters who are intent on making the story one of the biggest in baseball history. Even though these two teammates are fighting for the same record, their friendship helps them through the stress inflicted by the reporters and the public.
There are not enough nice things to say about this film. The acting was superb and a connection was immediately felt between the audience and our two heroes. Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane managed to make these two legends likeable, vulnerable and two guys you just really want to root for. It was difficult to watch Roger Maris go through the torment he had to endure throughout the film. From getting threatening letters from fans across the country, to having to deal with reporters who twisted facts to get a better story, the audience was able to sympathize for a guy who only wanted to play baseball and help his team win games. I didn’t know anything about Maris before this film, but at the end of the movie I was extremely grateful that 61* had been made so that baseball fans could really see all the difficulties that poor guy had to endure.
I have give a big applause to director Billy Crystal for telling such a riveting story. Some may say that baseball films are easy to make sentimental and inspiring, but Crystal did an excellent job of showing audiences the true sides of these players. Although the overall story was about two guys trying to break a record, we got to see the inner workings of both Maris and Mantle that was truly touching and at times inspiring to watch.
I’ve watched a lot of sports films but I have to put 61* up there with some of the best. Not only was the story great (though admittedly a little mushy at the beginning and end) but the directing and the acting was a joy to watch. Plus I got a little history lesson which is always a nice touch. HBO has done it again and I hope Billy Crystal will give us another baseball story in the future. It’s obvious he’s passionate about the subject as it shines in his work.
Video: A beautiful transfer, the film is clear and the colors look amazing.
Audio: Great sounds from the audience cheering for the players to the sound of that bat cracking with every home run hit.
Audio Commentary with executive producer/director Billy Crystal: A great commentary from Mr. Crystal who gives us all kinds of technical information, baseball facts and personal stories that make this a joy to listen to.
The Greatest Summer of My Life: Billy Crystal and the Making of 61* (51:58): A typical making of featurette with more personal touches from Billy Crystal. You can really tell this was a passion project for him and it shows through in the film as well as this feature.
Bios and Hitting/Fielding Stats: This is a list of Roger Maris’ 1961 home runs, bios on Maris and Mickey Mantle and season stats.