"American Pastime" opens with an forced, if understandable, storytelling shortcut. As we quickly meet the Nomura family, we're shown all the ways that make them truly American: the dad's grilling up hot dogs and hamburgers, the son thrills to jazz and baseball. Their East L.A. home is a portrait of the Melting Pot, with neighbors of every race enjoying a delightful get-together, all in celebrating their sheer Americanness.
This is a film about the Japanese internment camps of World War II, and to emphasize the point of the injustice, writers Desmond Nakano (who also directed) and Tony Kayden kick off their tale by showing us gleaming examples of innocent citizenry - they're neighbors, not threats.
The stage properly set, we quickly advance to the Nomuras' long stay at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. Their spirits are repeatedly broken by bigoted soldiers, and it becomes clear that it's better to keep quiet than to stand up and protest the insanity at hand. (Any rabble-rousers, we soon learn, are shipped off to a harsher camp.) The prisoners soon learn how to make it through the day, and one such outlet is baseball. The love of the game revives their spirits, the team gets pretty darn good (it helps that the youngest Nomura was about to land a baseball scholarship before the war broke out), and it's not long before the inmates are challenging the guards - who also play on the local minor league team - to a match-up.
"Pastime" is rooted in reality, as Japanese-Americans did indeed use baseball as a form of emotional escape during their internment. The script sprinkles in bits of history throughout, most notably with repeated mentions of the 442nd Regional Combat Team, the WWII Army unit made up of Japanese Americans who became the most decorated unit of the entire war. With their rallying cry of "go for broke!", their bravery made them heroes. Their story is so remarkable that it should be a movie - in fact, is already is: the 1951 programmer "Go For Broke!" gave the heroes their due, even if the Asian cast had to take second billing to the very white Van Johnson.
But you see my point. I'm thinking more about a fringe of the "Pastime" story than I am about the main characters. This is because while everything else about "Pastime" is very good - the acting is excellent, Nakano has a keen eye for powerful visuals, and the overall look and tone of the piece brings the early 1940s to life - it's all rooted in a uniformly mediocre screenplay. Here is a story eager to tackle every conceivable cliché. The young Nomura brothers' rivalry (the dad-always-liked-you-best kind) leads to one son shipping off to war. Not only does the other (Aaron Yoo) fall in love with a white girl, but she's the daughter of one of the main guards. As for that guard (Gary Cole), he's a washed-up minor leaguer who dreams of advancing to the Yankees; his whole subplot is an off-topic sports melodrama.
And, of course, the whole thing ends with the Big Game, bottom of the ninth, two out. (To get here, the movie has to fudge a bit by making the home team bat in the top, not bottom, of the inning.) The game alternates between likable baseball action and sappy character work, the latter ultimately winning out.
There's a lot to like in "American Pastime," thanks mainly to sharp performances that breathe fresh life into stale situations, but the movie is so clumsily formulaic that this goodwill isn't enough to save it from itself. We never get a full sense of the grand passing of time, and key ideas are churned out as feel-good episodes instead of with the emotional honesty they deserve. There's a strong story to be found in this dark chapter of American history, but Nakano and Kayden's screenplay is too determined to rehash old ideas to make us truly involved.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer brings the stunning photography to life. For a low budget effort with a pinch of a TV movie feel, it looks pretty darn good. The soundtrack is a sharp Dolby 5.1, with optional English, English for the Hearing Impaired, and French subtitles.
"Go For Broke: Behind American Pastime" (10:49) packs plenty of welcome information into its brief running time. We learn not only about the making of the film, but of the legacy of Japanese Americans in the 1940s and even a few comments on its relevance in today's America. Presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The film's trailer (1:43), which more or less gives away the entire story, rounds out the set.
"American Pastime" is a well made and well intentioned but ultimately slight drama. Rent It.