The concept of cheating in sports is nothing new or even that shocking anymore. Point shaving scandals pop up in basketball every now and then, baseball was riddled with steroids for a decade, and you basically can't run a clean college football program anymore. But in an era that has been desensitized by revelations of athletic misconduct, the idea of throwing games, and more importantly, almost an entire team participating in the throw, is shocking and almost unheard of in American professional sports. That is, with the exception of the infamous Black Sox scandal, the events of which are illustrated in "Eight Men Out." 1n 1919, at least eight members of the Chicago White Sox, disgruntled by the unfair treatment they received from the team's owner and money being scarse, took $10,000 apiece to do the unthinkable. Led by Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) and Eddie Cicotte (David Straithairn), the Sox threw the World Series, allowing the Cincinnati Reds to take home the title and prompting an investigation that in some ways would revolutionize the game of baseball and all other professional sports leagues in America.
The real heart (and tragedy) of "Eight Men Out" lies in the stories of Shoeless Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) and Buck Weaver (John Cusack). The film (and the book upon which it is based) shows Weaver taking part in the initial meeting with his teammates but reneging on his decision to help throw the games. Weaver, in fact, had an outstanding World Series for himself. Jackson, meanwhile, is depicted as having never participated in the fix, though he knew what his teammates were up to. A simple man who couldn't even read, Jackson seemed an unlikely type to throw a game and historically speaking, each of the players involved in the Black Sox scandal professed Jackson's innocense. Still, however, Jackson and Weaver were grouped with the rest of the cheaters and while a jury found the White Sox innocent, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis (John Anderson), the first commissioner of baseball, eventually handed out lifetime bans to all of the players involved, including Jackson and Weaver. To this day, Jackson, considered to be one of the greatest players of all time, is not in the Hall of Fame because of the events of "Eight Men Out."
That's a longer summary than I usually like to give but I actually knew a bit about this story to begin with and have always been slightly enamored with these events. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to see this film for myself. From a movie standpoint, you could do a LOT worse than "Eight Men Out." The cast is excellent with a number of recognizable faces playing even small parts throughout. Cusack and Sweeney are both convincing in their sympathetic positions (even if I am weirded out by how similar those two looked in 1988; seriously, they could be brothers). Maybe more importantly, though, the rest of the cast do an excellent job of conveying the various emotions and situations that led to the players' decisions to throw the Series. Some are natural gamblers, some know their time on the field is nearing its conclusion, some, like Straithairn's Cicotte, just need some financial stability that the franchise isn't providing. This isn't a black-and-white issue as it seems at first glance and the John Sayles script allows the actors a lot of room to operate within the gray. (Sayles also directed and plays a very important part.)
There is a definite hint of over-the-top ridiculousness that plagued the 80s and the baseball action itself is, at times, somewhat lame. I also have no idea how accurate the movie is (though it is based on the 1965 book that is considered to be the definitive authority on the events) and I think you can certainly pick out some moments that have the Hollywood feel to them. But none of this takes away from the overall entertaining and thoroughly engrossing tale of "Eight Men Out."