Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.


As one of the few areas of American society where men are regularly allowed to display emotion, the sports world has always been a haven for a particularly masculine brand of sentimentality. This is especially true of baseball, which survives in the face of countless younger, flashier, faster sports in large part due to the almost religious reverence it inspires in its fans. No stranger to sports movies and sentimentality, director Billy Crystal pays homage to the beloved New York Yankees of his youth with 61*, a handsomely mounted television drama about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle's race to break Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record. Opening with a stiff prologue recounting the Maris and Mantle families' reaction to Mark McGwire's record-breaking 62nd home run, 61* then segues to 1961, where Maris and Mantle, skillfully played by Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane, respectively, are gearing up for the new season. Flashy and extroverted, Mantle reigns as New York's premier sports icon, a fiercely charismatic heir to the all-American legacy of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. The stoic and introverted Maris, by contrast, goes about his business with a detached professionalism that alienates him from both fans and the press. At once friends and rivals, polar opposites and kindred spirits, Maris and Mantle make a compelling pair. For much of its duration, 61* engagingly documents the sluggers' attempts to maintain their friendship and sanity in the face of a troublemaking press, contrasting lifestyles, and a public whose hostility toward Maris serves as the perverse flip side of its unthinking adoration of Mantle. But as 61* tightens in on the latter's quest, it grows increasingly lifeless and conventional, burdened by a sagging pace and a dull subplot involving Mantle's marriage to unfailingly supportive Jennifer Crystal Foley (not coincidentally, the director's daughter). As Maris gets within striking distance of Ruth's legendary record, Crystal abandons all pretense of avoiding sentimentality, giving the film over to noble speeches interspersed with slow-motion celebrations of Maris' home-run-hitting majesty. What begins as a lively, vibrant evocation of one of baseball's greatest seasons ends as a frustratingly conventional tale of sports heroism, a sort of upscale movie-of-the-week for the Classic Sports Network crowd.

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