ESPN's 30 for 30 Series Review: "Catching Hell"

Ryne HodkowskiAnalyst ISeptember 28, 2011

Gibney does nothing to change my mind about Bartman, the 03 NLCS
Gibney does nothing to change my mind about Bartman, the 03 NLCS

Being a Cubs fan who has so much lineage in him that my parents decided to give me the often-mispronounced name of Ryne, I feared watching Catching Hell Tuesday night.  I remember where I was during the Bartman game, and I remember the historical relevance immediately taking hold.  I didn't want to watch because I thought it would re-open a wound or somehow shed new light on something I didn't want to know.  It didn't.  Instead, I kept saying to myself, "Tell me something I don't know."

I expected more out of the famed director Alex Gibney.  I wanted an analysis of the media's reaction, an analysis of why we scapegoat people, etc...  Those topics are present in the documentary, but they barely scratch the surface of the wider theme.

Instead, the documentary plays like a history lesson.  It tells us things we already know, like the Cubs aren't a good franchise and they haven't won a World Series in 100-plus years. 

Oddly, the film starts off with a long retelling of the 1986 World Series and Bill Buckner's infamous error.  I understand the connection between he and Bartman, but the mention of Buckner could have been briefer (anyone who is watching this and is remotely a fan of baseball has already linked the two names).  Instead, Gibney makes the story personal (which he should know is something a documentarian should never do), and has Bob Costas and Denis Leary give their personal feelings. this about Bartman or Buckner?

Then, the night of October 14, 2003 is told.  Again, in long detail.  And again, with people's uninteresting personal takes—one coming from an ESPN senior writer who says in his lifetime, "the Cubs have been very good."  I don't know what Cubs team he's been watching.  The one I watched has won one playoff series in mine and his lifetime.

So wait, Williams wasn't a selfish druggie who according to some, was the lowest form of human?
So wait, Williams wasn't a selfish druggie who according to some, was the lowest form of human?

The story goes into how cruel the fans were—throwing beer, brats and other debris at Bartman—and analyzes whether or not the fans fed off of Alou's reaction.  Again, tell me something I don't know. 

The film takes a weird turn when it tries to explain that Bartman may have reached for the foul ball because his radio was on tape delay.  Does this make sense?  Did Bartman have eyes, or were those in delay too?  Additionally, Gibney states that maybe Bartman didn't know the announcers were talking about him.  A) Bartman knew the ball hit him in the hands, and B) the fans weren't throwing stuff at him and cursing him for no reason.  I think he knew.

The story begins to get interesting with a gut-wrenching admission from a journalist.  He regrettably states that he approached Bartman at the game, handed him a card and said "Do you know what you just did?"  It's painful to imagine.  Then, the documentary begins to show footage from the weeks following the incident.  This is where the most interesting aspects of the story are and where it should have spent most of its time.  Why did the media focus on one thing?  What is it about humans that does this?  Does throwing a beer at Bartman really make you feel any better?  Was it ethical to release the name and address of Bartman?

Instead, the documentary is very disjointed.  It leaves this interesting theme and goes back to talking about how everyone would have done the same if they were in Bartman's shoes and how Bartman was actually a nice guy.  And then of course, it displays the idiocy of some Cubs fans, showing how people flock to Bartman's seat and how they held a party for the ball's destruction.  So they blew the ball up, what does that have to do with anything?  Is this about the Cubs' futility, curses, scapegoating, the media, how angry people are all the time or Denis Leary?  I'm confused. 

I appreciated the religious explanation of scapegoating near the end.  This is something that the documentary could have started out with.  Then, Bartman's story would have been evidence of how people scapegoat others, and all of the homemade fan videos and reactions would have taken on further meaning. 

As it stands, the fan reactions are pretty brutal.  The film does a good job of explaining how on one hand, it wasn't Bartman's fault the Cubs lost the NLCS, but that on other, people refuse to believe that, including Michael Wilbon and others interviewed.  I would say that this shows it might just be human nature to place the blame on one individual, i.e. scapegoat them, but I tend to have my feet on both sides of the fence when it comes to Bartman.  I don't like him.  I wouldn't have reached for the ball.  But on the other hand, I would never call him to threaten his life or throw anything at him, and I don't even blame him for anything.  It is just something that got totally blown out of proportion by the media.

And that brings us back to the piece of the puzzle that was missing in this documentary: an exploration of how the media twisted things to make Bartman public enemy No. 1.  What if they had given a general consensus that he should be left alone, and it wasn't his fault?  Instead, he was late night talk show fodder, ESPN put the blame on him and they kept airing fan reactions over and over.  They created a culture of hate. 

What the documentary Run Ricky Run did so well was exactly what I described above.  It showed the media's representation of Williams' retirement with the truth.  Williams had his own reasons for retiring, and they were far from what the media put out there.  As a result, it exposed the media as frauds and hysterics.  Catching Hell missed an opportunity to do something similar.

So I don't feel bad for watching the film because it gave me nightmares or because it rekindled a flame of hatred for Bartman.  I feel the same way towards Bartman and the 2003 NLCS as I did before watching it.  People were overly cruel, and the media perpetuated the scapegoating.  Great documentaries change the way we think about things.  Instead, Catching Hell just reminded us of everything we already knew.  It was a missed opportunity, just like the Cubs' 2003 season.