I will grant you that Buffalo 66—a wonderful film by the horrible Vincent Gallo, a bad dream in which an antihero suffers for betting on the Bills to win Super Bowl XXV—links up the actual fate of an actual NFL team with semi-actual human hopes and civic spirits. But the mind strains to think of other entertainments that treat the historical achievements of basketball or football franchises as keys to any corner of the American consciousness. There will never be a miniseries about the 1979 Seattle Supersonics or a misty pay-cable documentary about Joe Theismann’s tibia and the broken dreams of the Beltway.
But the diamond-bright boys of baseball always pull through. Baseball is the national pataphysics, and if you want to know more about that, then you can try to digest some George Will. I had merely the stomach for The Bronx Is Burning (ESPN, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) and Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush (HBO, debuts Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET). The former is a phony, and the latter is not a fake.
The Bronx Is Burning comes to your living room by way of Jonathan Mahler’s superfine chronicle of New York City in 1977. In hardcover, it bore a wryer title— Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning—words said on ABC’s airwaves by Howard Cosell during that year’s World Series. In any edition, it’s a fluid chronicle of an apocalypse scored to dead-end punk and blank-head disco: The Son of Sam killer was shooting car-parked ladies in their brunette heads; the city was recovering from having been told, by Gerald Ford, to drop dead; an Australian person called Rupert Murdoch had been acquiring periodicals; the bad blackout led to worse riots. Things at Yankee Stadium made all of this look not so bad.
The adaptation of Mahler’s book deals with this material in a fashion not so much dumbed-down as lobotomized. You might feel a bit differently if you are wholly unfamiliar with Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam or with the particular verve and nastiness of late-’70s New York orwith the very particular verve and nastiness of tabloid-newspaper culture—unfamiliar, more or less, with anything other than what you might learn from watching nothing but ESPN. In that case, you’d probably dislike it even more, as it would insult not just your aesthetic sense but also your sports knowledge.
Here we have Billy Martin (John Turturro, whose ears have been made to resemble parabolic microphones) negotiating with George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt, not quite megalomaniacal enough underneath a terrific sweep of bad hair) to become the manager of the Yankees: “You’re damn right I know about Yankee tradition! We only won six pennants and five World Series while I was there, and I was MVP in one of them, so I think I know a little something about Yankee tradition!” And yet the series keeps outdoing itself in testing the ridiculous limits of expository period dialogue. Consider the moment, in the third hour, when two young lovers discuss Saturday Night Live on their way out of a discotheque. “John Belushi, I really love him. He’s really funny,” she avers. Her beau counters: “I like, uh, Chevy Chase.” And then the Son of Sam shoots them, in a moment not at all scary.
Still, The Bronx Is Burning might have worked if it got Reggie Jackson right. As it is, the actor in the part, Daniel Sunjata, gets all of the cool—the strut, the glacial self-possession—but not much of the heat. When he throws a clubhouse tantrum on June 18, 1977, you catch him deliberating about flipping tables and throwing folding chairs, and the show leaves you feeling grateful for the grace notes—the way that actor Erik Jensen grumps Thurman Munson’s mustache around, the exactitude of Joe Grifasi’s three-heh mimicry of Yogi Berra’s laugh.
After this, The Ghosts of Flatbush, though it may in fact amount to no more than a very nice Father’s Day card, looks like Triumph of the Will. Zeroing in on the Dodgers of 1947 though ‘57, it summons a B-list pack of Brooklyn-bred talking heads—including Bensonhurst’s Larry King, Crown Heights’ Herb Ross, and Coney Island’s Lou Gossett Jr.—to lavish tough love on the team. Naturally, all the monumental moments get play: Once more does Jackie Robinson meet Branch Rickey—and, with Spike Lee still on the mind, I wonder when some studio or another will greenlight the planned Robinson bio that might define Lee’s career. Once more is Thomson at the plate and Pafko at the wall—and, if Don DeLillo’s your man, you’ll be pleased to see that he got this moment just right in Underworld, with “Branca on the mound in his tormented slouch.” But the movie also squeezes in any number of small moments, cute and hard: the strange affections of a die-hard fan named Hilda Chester, who always brought her cowbell; every nuance of the deciding game of the ‘55 World Series; and, best of all, the special sense of Brooklyn society summoned by comedian Pat Cooper, raised in Red Hook: “If my neighba said to my fadha, ya know, ya son was outta orda, my fadha’d trow me out the winda.” Place and tradition and community and honking vernacular voice: This is baseball, and it’s maybe the purest way to spend an American afternoon.