On October 3rd, 1951, in New York City, the Brooklyn Dodgers and The New York Giants were locked in battle over the National League Pennant. The race to the postseason had ended in a tie after the Dodgers suddenly slid into a slump while the Giants mounted a comeback. Although they trailed 4 to 1 going into the ninth inning, they managed to get the tying run on at first when the Dodgers put in young Ralph Branca to pitch. On the second pitch, Giants batter Bobby Thomson pulled a ball down the left field line and into the bleachers for a game-winning home run, ending the Dodgers' season and turning the Giants' comeback into an even bigger Cinderella story. The incident was dubbed "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" by baseball fans...a moment that Branca has struggled to live down.
Branca's Pitch serves as sort of a companion to Branca's book, A Moment in Time, focusing as much on Branca working on the autobiography with author David Ritz as it does on Branca's memories of being a fan of the sport, joining the Dodgers, and his career after the big moment. Both set out, in a sense, to set the record straight: not so much on the incident in question, despite information revealed in the decades since, but more on who Branca is as a human being, especially after he left baseball behind. Being a figure of sports infamy clearly weighs a little on Branca's mind (even when he claims it doesn't), and finally telling his side of the story gives him a chance to clear the air.
The heart of the film's success comes from Branca himself, who is quite candid. He talks about the expected topics, like the sensation of seeing a baseball game, but also provides some interesting insight into his religious faith, the raw emotions he felt when the season was over and the public moved to blame him, as well as some passing stories about being a teammate of Jackie Robinson. The documentary and its participants all praise Branca's memory, which is quite sharp, recalling plenty of detail. The film also unexpectedly provides quite a bit of insight into Ritz, who has ghostwritten over 50 biographies for a wide range of celebrities. Ritz is also a good subject, looking back on how he got into ghostwriting and his techniques for capturing the subject's voice.
Andrew J. Muscato moves from the producer role on a couple of other sports documentaries into the director's chair for this, and his work is adequate if not remarkable. Interview segments are heavily bolstered with vintage newsreel footage, photographs, and newspaper clippings. The newsreel footage is particularly interesting, giving a vivid glimpse of Branca in his prime, flashing his huge grin on the baseball diamond. There's also some great footage of Branca appearing on the game show "Concentration," which is a nice historical oddity. Strangely, though, the title moment is one of the film's most underwhelming and overstated, hamfistedly cutting between Branca's windup and a rapid-fire montage of Christ imagery to really ram home the subtext about martyrdom and the will of God. For a film that otherwise integrates Branca's beliefs in a very casual way, this feels remarkably exploitative and off-putting.
To make up for this (to an extent), Muscato switches gears near the end and moves into more intriguing territory: the subjective nature of a biography (and a documentary) compared to the objective nature of journalism. Muscato speaks to Joshua Prager, author of The Echoing Green, which uncovers the New York Giants' system of stealing signals -- the information shared between pitcher and catcher about what type of pitch is being thrown next -- and how Thomson and the '51 Giants used the technique to steal the game. In these clips, Prager points out numerous inaccuracies in Branca's version of events, and further information can be found outside of the film with just a cursory search. In the end, it's hard to tell how much of Branca's story is more legend than fact, but Muscato reminds the viewer that Branca's hope, with the book and the film, is that the story Branca chooses to believe is the one that is most important..
The DVD, Video, Audio, and Extras
Strand Releasing sent over a screener disc in a paper sleeve, featuring 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Since this may not be final copy, I won't offer detailed analysis of the A/V and can't comment on the packaging, but if this is representative of the actual release, mostly black-and-white picture looks very nice, with excellent detail. There are no extras on the disc. Only a trailer for Camera Man: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff is also included.
For baseball fans, especially those who remember the infamous moment at hand, Branca's Pitch is a must-watch, filled with wonderful footage on one of the most infamous players in Dodgers history. For others, the story may be less interesting, but it's still a warm and entertaining portrait of a man who was more than his 15 minutes of fame. Recommended.
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