HBO has become best known as the home of Tony Soprano’s New Jersey crew, but the net’s newest TV movie, director Billy Crystal’s ebullient 61*, deals with a different breed of tristate area hitmen. The title refers to the home run record set by New York Yankee Roger Maris in 1961 — a feat asterisked due to the fact that the season was eight games longer than when Babe Ruth set the mark in 1927. The film contends Maris’ achievement was diminished in this manner because fans, major league execs, and, most of all, the media would rather have seen his flashier teammate Mickey Mantle break the Babe’s coveted record. (The asterisk was removed by commissioner Fay Vincent in 1991.)
Crystal sets out to resuscitate Maris’ reputation and succeeds, thanks to the casting of Barry Pepper. The actor, so creepy as the scripture quoting sniper in ”Saving Private Ryan,” exudes Midwestern decency as the North Dakota bred slugger. At home, he’s a doting husband and dad, yet on the diamond, he cracks fewer smiles than Russell Crowe on Oscar night. (One reporter dubs the MVP ”Most Vacant Personality.”) With his brush cut and stoic countenance, Pepper looks so much like Maris, it’s scary.
Thomas Jane (”Deep Blue Sea”) doesn’t resemble Mantle as closely, but he captures the Mick’s cocky swagger. The contrast between free swinging Mantle and family man Maris stands at the heart of ”61*.” Crystal doesn’t view his childhood hero through misty eyes; he honestly depicts the imbibing that would cost Mantle his liver and his life. Yet while the movie is unabashedly pro-Maris, it isn’t antiMantle. Rookie writer Hank Steinberg’s affecting screenplay hints at the demons that drove both men: Mantle’s father died of Hodgkin’s disease at 39, instilling his ”live for today” mentality, while Maris’ older brother (also a promising ballplayer) was sidelined by polio.
The filmmakers depict the teammates’ relationship with a gratifying complexity — they’re both competitive and protective of each other. In an attempt to curb his carousing, Mantle moves into Maris’ sleepy Queens pad, and there’s a priceless scene in which the two sit dumbfounded as they watch a TV report about their alleged ”feud.” The press bashing ultimately becomes tiresome, but ”61*” provocatively illustrates how pop culture demands that celebrities provide entertainment both on and off the job.
Crystal directs in an endearingly old-fashioned style, making use of spinning headline montages and period tunes (such as Mantle’s wooden duet with Teresa Brewer, ”I Love Mickey”). With his fondness for borscht belt comics (the subject of his 1992 directorial debut, ”Mr. Saturday Night”) and prehistoric talk show host Joe Franklin (whom he spoofed in ”SNL” sketches), he’s always seemed a throwback to an earlier era, and that nostalgic penchant suits this material well. As a stand-up, Crystal understands the Bronx Bombers’ on the road bonding, and he brings a baseball fanatic’s attention to detail — from re-creating Maris’ batting stance to using Yankees PA announcer Bob Sheppard as narrator.
The deep bench of supporting players includes the director’s daughter Jennifer Crystal Foley (”Once and Again”), as Maris’ wife, Pat. A seemingly nepotistic choice, Foley delivers a lovely performance (it doesn’t hurt that Dad shoots her adoringly). ”Breakfast Club”ber Anthony Michael Hall convincingly embodies pitcher Whitey Ford, who helps clean up Mantle’s drunken messes, and ”Animal House” alum Bruce McGill is a pillar of dignity as Yankee manager Ralph Houk. Among the evocative cameos are Michael Nouri (as a clubhouse haunting Joe DiMaggio), Christopher McDonald (as play by play man Mel Allen), and Joe Grifasi (as his pasta obsessed side kick, Phil Rizzuto).
Like any home run hitter, ”61*” occasionally whiffs. Framing the story with scenes of Maris’ wife and kids watching Mark McGwire break his record in 1998 feels awkward, as does having Yogi Berra (Paul Borghese) spout one of his most famous ”Yogi-isms” (”Ninety percent of the game is half mental”) during a batting practice sequence. And while Crystal mostly keeps his maudlin tendencies in check, he overuses the slo-mo footage and Marc Shaiman’s mawkish score when Maris finally smashes his 61st dinger. Still, it’s hard not to get choked up at the sight. By that point, Crystal and his movie have earned their sentimental pinstripes.