Film & TV

Bottom of the 9th: Sympathy for the Underdog

Joe Manganiello in Bottom of the Ninth (Saban Films/Trailer image via YouTube)
This charming, profound, and original movie gives us an Italian-American Everyman hero.

Bottom of the 9th comes to home video this week just as the new movie season begins. This second-chance paradox makes up for the neglect of film critics who failed to give the movie the attention that it deserved when Bottom of the 9th debuted. A rare, affecting baseball film, it’s also an unapologetic, unhip redemption tale — which is to say that the attempt of Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) to regain the baseball career he lost because of a youthful indiscretion depicts values that run counter to the behavior currently celebrated in our cynical culture.

Sonny’s predicament — and film critics’ general indifference to it — prove Bottom of the 9th’s special relevance. We see how Sonny, once a promising teenage baseball prospect, served a 20-year conviction for manslaughter, gets released and paroled, and then gradually recovers his love of the game, achieving a more mature sense of self.

Critics could have encouraged social consciousness and enticed viewers by comparing Sonny’s life to the Trump administration’s First Step Prison Reform. They didn’t. Ironically, the Trump bill (HR 6964) and its open-hearted White House signing ceremony received almost as little coverage from the #Resistance media as Bottom of the 9th itself did. But the film’s relevance goes deeper than politics.

It’s bold: a white ethnic story told at a time when Hollywood holds white male experience in low esteem. Sonny’s anguished personal circumstance was caused by his own character flaw — the macho defensiveness of an urban 19-year-old. (Sonny’s initial sentence was compounded when he reverted to self-protective violence in a prison-yard threat to his manhood.)

Now middle-aged, Sonny guards against that aggressive tendency; his every ex-con move is self-conscious and sympathetic. This film goes against the progressives’ 2020 campaign posture that castigates “white privilege.” Sonny’s teenage potential as a baseball phenomenon, once courted by the New York Yankees, actually represents his own missed opportunity. His honest self-assessment is forever tied to the regret he feels for killing another neighborhood youth.

Sonny’s apology to his victim’s mother and the guilt he feels at the vivid anger of an unforgiving relative are extraordinary moral stand-offs. The social conflict in these scenes is recognized in a way that, say, America’s inner-city gang-killing epidemic rarely is. (The media prefer to manipulate the latter for pathos, blame, and partisan agreement.)

Bottom of the 9th’s distinctive emotive qualities (scripted by Robert Bruzio) align with the virtues of the film’s director, Raymond De Felitta, whose features Two Family House, City Island, and Rob the Mob showed remarkable insight into white ethnic experience as part of all-American reality. De Felitta always perceives the unique way New York ethnic tribes act among themselves and how they sometimes intermix: Italian-American Sonny holds on to trust and affection for his Colombian-American high-school sweetheart Angela (Sofia Vergara). This social integration usually makes for tension — the cynical version of realism — in films by Sidney Lumet, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese. Their films Q&A, Clockers, and even the mostly good Bringing Out the Dead too often suggested that ethnic alienation is unresolvable, but De Felitta’s social sensitivity is benevolent.

And De Felitta induces benevolence in his actors: Michael Rispoli, as the Yankee scout who remembers Sonny’s capabilities, displays the same pragmatic bonhomie that was so convincing in Two Family House and so complex in Charles Stone III’s Mr. 3000. Manganiello’s Sonny is a highlight of this movie year — the most credible sports characterization by an actor since Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000. He looks great in his Staten Island team’s uniform, with the same tall-jock shrewdness and elegance that Roger Angell saw in the peak years of the Yankees’ Don Mattingly. Manganiello’s Sonny personifies a boyhood ideal: the athletic apotheosis of casual working-class masculinity. Rather than brooding about squandered promise, Sonny maintains an unspoiled hopefulness; though shy of stardom, he is common-man heroic.

Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky was pure but moronic. Michael B. Jordan updated that jock stereotype into pure-but-troubled in Creed — also in the lamentable Creed II, which found no way to distinguish black-jock discontent as an aspect of American male frustration. Sonny manifests masculine dissatisfaction and eternal longing. Manganiello’s physical assurance and emotional daring suggest a Millennial version of the male bravado that Errol Flynn displayed in Raoul Walsh’s boxing bio-pic Gentleman Jim (1942) — which romanticized James Corbett, the fin de siècle swaggering Irishman and heavyweight champion.

De Felitta revives some of the forthright, rambunctious ethnic awareness that distinguished Walsh’s stories about men’s aspirations (once a staple at Warner Bros. studios), but he avoids the discord of contemporary identity politics. Home-video enthusiasts who seek out Bottom of the 9th will be restored to national camaraderie through the film’s depth, charm, and sweetness.

Sonny’s Everyman tale revives the hope that cinema might still be a popular art form, even as the movie year heads into its ugliest, platitudinous, awards-grubbing phase. Maybe the title Bottom of the 9th did not help the film’s prospects, but better to sympathize with an underdog than affirm a “deplorable.”

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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