There is an entity in American sports that athletes fear to arouse and sometimes ingratiate themselves to a little too eagerly, and that seems to be the New York sports media. It is admittedly a little difficult to determine just when this body became so formidable, though one could easily point to the 1961 battle for all-time Yankee great Babe Ruth's single-season mark for home runs between Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. The duel between the friendly players and the media's treatment of the fairly new acquisition Maris (compared to the kid gloves coverage Mantle received) is the subject of 61*.
Written by Hank Steinberg (Without a Trace) and directed by Billy Crystal (Forget Paris), Maris is played by Barry Pepper (True Grit), whose resemblance to the player is remarkable to the say the least. Mantle is played by Thomas Jane (The Thin Red Line), and the two teammates get along well. Maris helps Mantle come home and recover from numerous drunken binges while on the road, binges that seem to go unreported by many New York reporters. And over the course of the 1961 season, Mantle was the choice of the press and the fans to break the record. He had played with the Yankees for a decade and was the face of the franchise. Maris was shown more hostility by the fans and reporters despite being the Most Valuable Player the previous year for the Yankees.
Soon though, Maris' treatment (and his reaction to it) worsened. Babe Ruth's widow was interviewed and said Mantle was her preferred choice to break the record. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick said that unless the record was broken in the first 154 games of the season (the seasons were at their present length of 162 games) an asterisk would be attached to the record, whoever might have broken it. Additionally he was receiving hate mail and an occasional threat, and the stress of this caused the 26-year old to have his hair fall out in clumps. It helped when he had a chance to vent to his wife Pat (played by Crystal's daughter Jennifer) and his teammates. He got along with everyone inside the locker room well, yet he possessed a dry sense of humor that tended to rub those outside the room the wrong way, which seems to be one of the reasons for the treatment.
Pepper conveys these feelings and shelters from people extremely well in the film, and gives the general observer great insight into what Maris must have been going through at the time. As Mantle, Jane's not doing an interpretation as much as inhabiting what we later learned of Mantle and his Oklahoman accent is pretty convincing, right down to the commercial for a hot dog that Crystal includes in the film. As for his direction, while he might have swung and missed (to borrow a phrase) in past films, as a longtime Yankees fan he was well aware of the home run chase and saw a couple of games and devoured anything in print devoted to the pinstripes as a kid. It's that love which comes through in the film as he quietly lets the story do the talking while the performances give it believability. His direction is capable and I'm sure he provided a sage suggestion when called upon, but the story itself is pretty compelling that it was hard to really get it wrong in the right hands, as Crystal's are for the material.
Ultimately with the way things in baseball have played out in the decades since, especially since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's surpassing of Maris appears now to be aided by performance enhancing drugs, seeing Maris go through what he went through physically on the diamond in 61 is impressive. What he went through off the field and as shown in 61* is downright heroic and in a small way, a call for the New York sporting media to cool their jets should a similar circumstance occur with another athlete in the future.
The Blu-ray Disc:
61* is presented in an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 high-definition transfer that looks damn good, better than it did when it first aired. Academy-award winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler's visuals look exceptional, with the lighter greens of the Yankee Stadium seats and stronger green field looking accurate and as vivid as can be. Crystal's discussion of how Wexler lighted different characters in the commentary helps provide for good reference when examining a scene where Mantle and Maris talk in the locker room. Flesh tones are accurate without red or orange pushes and blacks look strong through the film. This is a solid upgrade from the standard definition disc (or any re-airings that may be going down on HBO these days).
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound option is a welcome one, but the action within the film itself is hardly a sonic wonder. Everything occurs up front with little in the way of directional effects or channel panning, though Marc Shaiman's music (combined with a second act scene where Mantle is giving a standing ovation) makes for a subtle yet convincing level of immersion. Dialogue is consistent in the center channel and requires no user compensation. It makes for effective listening material.
Virtually all of the extras from the previous disc are included on the Blu-ray (the DVD-ROM links from the SD are omitted), starting with a commentary from Crystal. I was partly expecting him to break out the wisecracks and he does, though they are rare as he sticks to the material and discussed approaches to the story, the visual intent that he (and Wexler) wanted to accomplish and scene deconstructions of some of the baseball sequences. He also shares the real-life prism as to some of the locker room scenes. The track tends to lose steam near the end but it's a very good listen and provides some good historical perspective on the players and production.
Along with some quick stills that summarize the biographies and playing stats of the pair, the only other supplement is "The Greatest Summer of My Life" (51:39), an extensive making-of look at the film where Crystal shares more memories about his times growing up and going to Yankee Stadium to see Mantle and Maris play during the summer of '61. The actors share their thoughts about the players and the efforts undergone to transform themselves into players, and making wardrobe, hair and playing styles as genuine to the period as possible are shown. The story choices Crystal makes are discussed and the surviving family talks about their thoughts on the film, and the logistics of making Detroit's Tiger Stadium look like old Yankee Stadium are given some face time. The segment itself is a little long but (pun intended) it covers all the bases.
61* is an interesting story that sheds light on what is still one of the more impressive sporting feats in the last half century. With good performances by its cast it is entertaining, and technically the disc looks excellent. The making of featurette is complete as can be, and those concerned of double-dipping shouldn't worry. Those who haven't seen the film (or are familiar with the 1961 home run chase) owe it to themselves to see this.