Movie Review: “Knuckleball!” (Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg, USA 2012)

I don’t really like reviewing documentaries, particularly when I don’t find them particularly compelling. The reason is that they’re very difficult to judge and really quite different from non-documentary films, because they also require some fidelity to truth–they have to be held to journalistic standards as well as artistic ones, and there are only so many subjects on which I have enough knowledge to be able to make journalistic determinations. So, I have to do at least a little bit of research before I feel comfortable saying anything at all about a documentary. I read plenty of what I could find about Rodriguez after watching Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK 2012), so that I could feel reasonably confident that the film was presenting reality. For this film, I luckily don’t have to do research, because I know plenty about baseball already.

More importantly, this documentary isn’t even sure what it’s about, so I would have no idea what to research if I wanted to. The title suggests that it’s a documentary about the knuckleball, a rare and rather bizarre pitch that has been in use in baseball since the early 20th century but never been the most popular pitch. Fascination with the knuckleball has grown in the last few years with the rise of R.A. Dickey, who is one of the most well-spoken and interesting players in Major League Baseball, as a Cy Young award winner while throwing the knuckleball. One could make a film about the knuckleball examining issues like what its movement actually is and why it has never been terribly popular despite quite a few very successful practitioners in history (Dickey, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Joe and Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Eddie Cicotte, just to name a few), and it could be very interesting.

However, Stern and Sundberg seem to be using the knuckleball simply as an excuse to tie together two otherwise unconnected stories: the career of R.A. Dickey and the career of Tim Wakefield. They are two interesting and well-liked players (and Dickey is a pleasure to hear almost any time–he’s well-spoken and has lots of great stereotypical nerd interests) and Wakefield was leaving the game just as Dickey rose from relative obscurity to prominence throwing the same pitch that had been Wakefield’s bread and butter for so many years, but it seems odd to title the film Knuckleball! and then barely talk about the pitch itself.

Even within its narrative about the two pitchers, the film feels very uneven. It spends a lot of time talking about Wakefield’s search for his 200th career win, but Dickey instead is mostly seen attempting to find his way out of a terrible slump. We see Dickey talking to other knuckleball specialists (Hough, the Niekros, and Wakefield) and talking a ton about how traditional pitching coaches don’t know how to help, but his career is covered very briefly. Meanwhile, Wakefield gets a long tribute that focuses on his successes, built around his ultimately successful quest for 200 wins.

All of this unevenness makes the film end up feeling like Stern and Sundberg wanted to make a documentary just about Wakefield’s final season but realized they needed to fill more time and so added in some stuff with Dickey. It’s unfortunate, because a serious examination of the knuckleball would be fascinating, and many of the issues that would be worth exploring get mentioned but not explored because of the nature of this film.

Visually, Stern and Sundberg fall into the traditions of sports documentaries, using simple interview shots and lots of montages that include far too many extra images of things like schedules and statlines. It’s a style that I’ve frankly never favored anyway, and it’s now been so overused as to lose any interesting elements it may once have had. The biggest positive of ESPN’s now fairly long-running 30 for 30 series has been its willingness to look a bit different–to let its directors run with some different techniques than the interview-montage back-and-forth and overuse of dull graphics that characterizes most of the field, and this film frankly reminded me of what a breath of fresh air some of those films have been because of that distinction.

However, the film does seem to play fair with the facts. It doesn’t gloss over Wakefield’s failures in his quest or ignore that he was demoted to the bullpen at the start of his last season. It doesn’t pretend that the longtime decent pitcher was released from the Pirates for no apparent reason but rather admits that he had a terrible season that led to his release. It doesn’t ignore Dickey’s struggles after his breakout (in fact it arguably makes Dickey look worse than he actually is). The problems with this film are all artistic, not journalistic.

Overall, this isn’t a very interesting film. It starts with what should be an interesting subject, but goes in a very dull way with it and ends up being something only of interest to a major Tim Wakefield fan. It’s a missed opportunity, which is too bad for viewers. It won’t make you sorry you spent an hour and a half watching it if you’re interested in Wakefield, but it won’t draw you in otherwise.

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