Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Poetic Injustice: Little Big Men
Cody Webster stares into the camera like a man looking across an abyss of time for the soul he left behind. His shirt is as blue as the Atlantic Ocean. His eyes are as deep as the Pacific. His expression is mournful, like a Labrador retriever that’s been whipped with a fireplace poker by an intolerant master. As Webster speaks, the salt-and-pepper bristles of his goatee pierce the air like a thousand needles scraping at the skin of a balloon. All the while, Webster’s shoulders sag as if he spent his youth hunched over beneath the weight of enormous expectations, like Atlas holding up the world, and with good reason: Twenty-eight years ago, when he was 12, Webster was the star of a baseball team trying to win the Little League World Series and rescue the United States from a universal depression that wrapped around this country like a sticky vine. Today, at 40, Webster reminisces about those experiences in Little Big Men, a documentary that’s rife with the kind of overstatement and overwriting that you’ve been subjected to in this paragraph. My apologies.
Through 18 installments, ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series has ranged from engrossing and artful to interesting yet unremarkable, but it never delivered an outright flop until now. At its best, like when we look into the eyes of a thoughtful Webster, Little Big Men is casually engaging. Alas, at its worst it’s tragic, and in this case that’s the norm. The film is overlong and underfed; it has the skeleton of a story but no meat on its bones. Journalistically speaking, it either buries the lead or fails to detect it. Dramatically speaking, it makes the mistake of trying to be profound when it could have succeeded just by being personal. Cinematically speaking, it’s a crime, which is to say that it isn’t cinematic in the least. Although the straight-ahead, eyes-into-the-camera testimonials of Webster and some of his teammates from Kirkland, Washington’s 1982 Little League team recall the work of Errol Morris, the rest of the film is more akin to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. It’s radio, and overly poetic radio at that, with enough pregnant pauses to make William Shatner impatient.
Or maybe it’s literature. Little Big Men sometimes feels as if it’s a movie adaptation of a previously written work, with the original prose left in. The narrator, speaking on behalf of directors Al Szymanski and Peter Franchella, articulates all the points that the camera should have made but failed to capture or, worse, never attempted to convey. As if to make up for the documentary’s lack of cinematic expressiveness, the narration is both incessant and excruciatingly repetitive, as in this indicative passage: “Boyhood dreams are supposed to fly high and far, soar beyond reality’s reach. But those innocent visions are haunted by a beast, a nightmare figure, lurking softly in the shadows.” To be honest, I didn’t know one could “lurk softly.” Then again, I was also under the impression that the word “whether” was a tool for exploring two alternatives, and if so that would render the following narration grammatically curious: “Funny how a lifetime eventually becomes nothing more than bits of memorabilia and mementos, whether it’s snapshots tucked away in a dusty corner, forgotten, there’s no slowing the sand once it begins to slip through the hourglass.” Is it me, or does it feel like something’s missing from that sentence? Not to mention, I don’t think it’s correct that “a lifetime eventually becomes nothing more than bits of memorabilia and mementos.” Of course, I don’t think this nugget of narration is accurate either: “Words work best when used as guideposts, in an oath or pledge. They chalk the lines that mark the field of fair play, pointing the way to what truly matters while compelling us to reach for what could be. But those same words can carry a cruel edge, become a reckless blade capable of damage unintended, when used to quantify the quality of an adolescent dream, catalog the content of a child’s heart, or to simply cause pain.” Huh?
It’s as if Szymanski, who based on the “30 for 30” website appears to be the principal director, is trying to make a minor moment in sports history into a biblical event by embossing each scene with consequence and verse. “As the ‘70s bled into the ‘80s, our country was in crisis,” the narrator says near the start of the film. “An oil crisis; gasoline rationed at the pump. A crippling recession. Professional athletes on strike. Olympic boycotts. U.S. citizens held hostage on foreign soil … America questioned her soul, her place in the world. The 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ was a powerful spark, a light in the dark, but our country needed more. Who would have thought that America would find inspiration running the base paths on a Little League diamond?” Indeed, who would have thought? But while America’s celebration of the home country’s victory over powerhouse Taiwan was very real, it’s misguided at best and disingenuous at worst for Little Big Men to imply it was something more, as if on par with the “Miracle on Ice,” or even close to it.
If Kirkland’s victory really was such a landmark moment in U.S. history – I was 5 at the time – Szymanski’s film doesn’t make a very compelling argument. And, actually, that’s a trend. This is a documentary that suggests it was wrong for Cody Webster to become the face of the 1982 Little League team, and then it goes ahead and makes Cody Webster the face of the film. It suggests that people were foolish to think that Webster’s dominance at 12 was a forecast of his athletic future as an adult, and yet Webster’s story is worth telling now only because he didn’t make it as a professional athlete; if he had, the movie couldn’t suggest that he was scarred by his time in the spotlight. Of course, now that I’ve mentioned it, Webster doesn’t seem to be scarred anyway, and that's also a problem. His former teammates cry for him. The film all but plays “Taps” for his lost innocence. But Webster looks back on his childhood and says he wouldn’t change a thing. “I was really good when I was 12,” he says. “I wasn’t really good when I was 18. That’s just the true reality of it all, and I was good with that.”
See, that’s profound. The soul of this film is right there in Webster’s face, in his voice, in his personal account of victory and the impossible expectations and taunts from parents he endured as a result. But Little Big Men talks too much to really hear Webster. It’s too busy building trite drama. (“They represented the United States in a game that no one gave them a chance to win. No one, except themselves.”) It’s too busy waxing poetic. (“Memories are like a morning fog, rising up at random moments to hang thick and real before slipping away under the sun’s demand for yet another day.”) It’s too busy using a few dozen words to describe what any sports fan knows by heart. (“This is where boyhood dreams run the base paths, slide into home and maybe, just maybe, raise a trophy and shout, ‘We did it! We won! We’re the best in the world!’”) Little Big Men fails because of an unwillingness to allow this Little League drama to ever feel small. Its filmmakers are too busy writing the story to spot it in front of them.
Little Big Men premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.