Tuesday, September 4, 2007

TBG Reviews ESPN's The Bronx is Burning Miniseries

So sue me…I really liked it.

Well, for the most part.

Before ESPN's latest entry in their almost always embarrassing made-for-TV movies debuted in early July, I was struck by the consistency of the critics' three biggest complaints:

1.) The non-baseball scenes (the "Son of Sam" investigation, New York's 1977 mayoral race, the infamous summer blackout, among others) were poorly-executed superfluous filler.

2.) Oliver Platt's portrayal of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner crossed over into caricature.

3.) Daniel Sunjata's afro wig and/or John Turturro's prosthetic ears.

OK, so let's counterpoint this thang…

I can't disagree more with those who believed the miniseries' societal subplots were a hindrance to the primary Yankees story. Sports movies are hard enough to get right, so credit ESPN for mostly following the layered storytelling of Jonathan Mahler's best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning" book. The end result is that none of the concurrent storylines ever overstays its welcome.

Especially impressive was the archival footage featuring "man on the street" interviews with New York City residents as the stifling events of the summer of '77 enveloped an entire populace.

As for Platt's performance, it's my hope that the ESPY Academy remembers his work during next year's ceremonies.

Breaking news: George Steinbrenner already is a caricature. You cannot play him "too over-the-top" and Platt pretty much nails the preening, self-absorbed prickness that is the essence of The Boss. From his manipulative "recruiting lunch" with Reggie Jackson in the first episode to his terrific, non-speaking final scene (he watches a replay of his postgame interview in the victorious Yankees locker room), I think it's safe to say that Platt has finally exorcised the demons of Ready to Rumble.

Hell, his delivery of the "Nobody's queer" line in the fourth episode still makes me laugh.

Of course, it wouldn't be "ESPN Original Entertainment" if the World Wide Leader wasn't spending big bucks on marketing and promotion, while throwing pennies at make-up and costume design. Fortunately, neither Sunjata's, umm, hair extensions or Turturro's Dumbo look detract from their performances.

Sunjata's Reggie Jackson sounded like the real thing, even if he lacked some of the original's imposing physical presence. It would've been a cakewalk for Sunjata to dust off the clichéd "insecure arrogant athlete" approach, but instead, he hams it up with a '70s superstar vibe when needed, then dials it down to do "brooding" just as well.

I thought Turturro's Billy Martin was fine when he was battling Steinbrenner or his character's personal demons, but, as a whole, he wasn't as convincing as Platt or Sunjata.

The first four or five episodes of The Bronx is Burning kept everything moving along at a brisk pace and managed to mask the on-field gameplay, which was the weakest part of the story. Once the Son of Sam case was solved (Episode #5) the miniseries became a so-so reenactment of the Yankees' playoff run.

ESPN leaned heavily on actual game footage – which, at 30 years old, was predictably rough and grainy – then cut back to the actors in the same roles, positioned in the same places on the field. Let's be kind and say…that really didn't work for me. In addition, a surprising amount of "blue screen" shots, where the background was obviously superimposed behind the actors, appeared throughout the show's run. Considering the attention to detail that HBO gave to replicating 1961 Yankee Stadium in 61*, ESPN's approach looks even more low-budget.

Still, these aren't huge gripes. Faint praise be damned, but this was easily the best ESPN movie that EOE has produced. Strong performances, an appreciation for historical significance and a few "hey, wasn't that…" cameos by the guy who played Kevin's dad on The Wonder Years, the guy who played "Roc" on Roc and the remains of Jason Giambi were all worth my eight-week investment.

Be sure to check out m'man Tom's review of the book that the miniseries was based on.


Anonymous said...

I think you're really underrating the Yankee portions. No mention of Thurman Munson? I thought the actor who played him was fantastic and his interaction with Reggie and Billy was really good. Smaller part, but the loud "jive" persona of Mickey Rivers was funny as hell (admittedly, in a narrowly stereotypical way).

I agree it was watchable, but there many more elements worth watching as well.

mike mejor said...

Tell you the truth, I probably liked yours and Tom's reviews of the movie and book more than I enjoyed watching the movie or reading the book.

I know that the WWL needs to push the *sports* aspect of the story, but I never got a sense that the sports portions of the miniseries really mattered in the context of the city.

Meanwhile, maybe it's because I'm not a NY'er, but save for the Son of Sam content the rest of the stories in the book didn't really grab me.