The Natural (1984)

The Natural - DVD cover, director's cutDirected by Barry Levinson

This is not a movie about baseball. It’s a movie about the dream of baseball. In fact, it could be the dream of any sport or, truthfully, any dream. The movie is concerned about a mythic image and how it resonates with us.

In The Natural, a young Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) learns baseball from his father (a very mythic image, and shot that way by director Barry Levinson). Eventually he grows up and gets his chance in the majors, brought about partly by a contest between young Hobbs and a famous baseball player. But just as Hobbs gets to the city and is on the verge of getting his chance, he is sucker punched (in a manner of speaking) by his youth and by the harsher realities of sports’ celebrity.

The film then jumps to 16 years later. While we know what has happened, the film doesn’t reveal the consequences of what has happened. In fact, we think for a moment Hobbs is dead. Instead, we see Hobbs showing up at the practise of a major league team. We find out he has been called up to play. The team’s manager is both puzzled and annoyed; his team is losing and the front office has sent him an aging player from the minors – Hobbs.

As the film progresses, Hobbs eventually makes the team. Once playing, he becomes an immediate star. He is a “natural.” He can hit, run, catch and pitch … There is almost no area of the game he doesn’t excel at. But the film keeps those intervening 16 years a mystery. There is something unrevealed about Hobbs and we’re eager to know his secret.

As it turns out, it’s not much of a secret. Having been defeated in his first attempt to reach the heady world of major league baseball, he simply got lost. It is a standard mythic tale of a hero who, as usually happens, suffers defeats before he can overcome and achieve his goal, in this case the baseball dream Hobbs and his father shared.

The film recognizes, even celebrates the fact that this is the essential element of sports. Baseball is especially good at enunciating hero’s story where, alone and isolated, he battles against great odds. Knowing this, and recognizing we are in the realm of myth, the movie accepts the mythic world and even uses it. It isn’t interested in realty. When Hobbs goes to bat, his hits are over the top – literally over the fence but also cinematically – lights explode, glass shatters, the crowd rises and roars. The film and the audience know it is bigger than life but we also know that this is the point.

Robert Redford is wonderful in the role of Roy Hobbs. It certainly isn’t a huge acting challenge – Hobbs character isn’t given a great deal of depth but this is due to the archetypal nature of the role. It would cease to be mythic if it were a character study. But as the representative of the mythic hero, in this context, Redford is perfect. It is one occasion where the “Redford good looks” work for and really enhance the movie. While always struggling with his “pretty boy” celebrity, in The Natural they work for him: his handsome look, slightly self-conscious reserve and winning smile are exactly the image needed for Roy Hobbs.

It’s also true of the other characters in the film, played by Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Kim Basinger and others. The roles don’t have depth. They are all representatives of mythic images.

In the end, The Natural is a great American movie because it articulates an American myth so well. It acknowledges the myth, and embraces and celebrates it.

The image and sound on the DVD are pretty good though, being a film from 1984, not as pristine as we might like. Still, they’re pretty good. There is also a documentary that sways back and forth between being about the movie and being about baseball. It primarily features baseball great Cal Ripken Jr., though it also contains bits with director Barry Levinson discussing the film. A nice bonus.

4 stars out of 4.

(Originally posted in 2003.)

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