A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie is the furthest thing from nonstop baseball action. It's extremely talky, with the game scenes almost an afterthought. There is lots of salty locker-room language, including references to (possible) homosexuality and adultery and sexually transmitted diseases. The subject of a man dying young isn't tackled religiously. Characters just sadly accept his fate.
What's the story?
Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), a star pitcher on the fictitious New York Mammoths ball club, happens to drive a rookie teammate named Bruce Pearson (a young Robert De Niro, who studied his role by practicing with the Cincinnati Reds) from the doctor's office. Pearson has just gotten a grim diagnosis of terminal Hodgkin's disease. Pearson is an unsophisticated country kid from Georgia, and Wiggen feels moved to become a practical guardian angel to Pearson, even though they weren't really close before. Since their contracts are up for renewal, Wiggen goes to great lengths to hide Pearson's condition and give him more time to enjoy the sport he loves without the disease interfering. Other players can't fathom the friendship, and blustery team manager Schnell (Vincent Gardenia, who was Oscar-nominated for the role) knows something's going on behind his back, but he can't figure out what. Still, the progress of the illness can't be halted.
Is it any good?
While the video box has a Roger Ebert thumbs-up recommendation calling this "the ultimate baseball movie," it's a foul if you expect BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY to be a lot about action. Home runs on the field and a nail-biting Big Game finale, in the manner of a family-sports frolic like Rookie of the Year: none of that here. This is a stagy, melancholy drama, filmed plainly against a baseball backdrop. All the important scenes happen off the field, with much verbal poetry made from the game's colorful slang and a lineup of eccentric owners, coaches, managers, girlfriends, retirees, and teammates, to evoke an elegy for an athlete dying young.
The narrative has no strong forward motion, no real villain or menace. The low-key treatment doesn't really spell out Wiggen's character and background motivations, maybe because he was already an established hero in a series of baseball novels by author Mark Harris. The big-screen feature came along at a time before superstar-athlete salaries (a lot of the dialogue does involve bickering over money), when baseball, especially commemorated in the nonfiction bestseller The Boys of Summer, seemed like one of the last vestiges of American innocence and goodness, after the Vietnam War and the tumultuous 1960s. Maybe that's also why the whole movie has such a wistful, achy-breaky-heart quality to it. Kids might frankly be bored by all the jabber, though ones who are deeply into sports could take some good pointers here about camaraderie.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the characters' motivations. Why does Wiggen go to such extremes to protect Bruce, when he (according to another character) had no great friendship with his fellow player before the fatal medical diagnosis. Do you think Wiggen's actions show team spirit, or just the opposite? What do you think would have happened if he had told the truth about Pearson in the first place?
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