Bull Durham ★★★★★

Baseball is the greatest of American sports. That’s one of those things you get or you don’t. And this is the best of the baseball movies, smack dab in the middle of the 1984-1993 golden age of baseball movies. More than any other film, Bull Durham gets the psychological pull of the game, the thing that’s made it into a national institution even for those who have never watched a game. 

This is the only baseball film that I’m aware of where a woman is the true equal of the male leads, and that includes A League of Their Own. Annie Savoy is one of my favorite characters in film because of that, a woman who is decades ahead of her time even now. This is a person that has constructed a life for herself based entirely on what she wants out of existence, almost entirely untouched by pre-packaged ideas of consensus morality and reaction against it. It’s through her eyes that we see the story, and hers is a perspective that is rare in cinema in general, let alone a sports film. 

Crash Davis is the embodiment of the hard bitten, world weary catcher, a long-standing baseball trope but one that’s given a real human life in this film. He’s Annie’s equal, and that means a lot in this story. He and Annie are one of the most complementary pairings in movies, a character that operates on the same rarefied plane but in his own manner, his life and experience of course being different. Directors cast Kevin Costner and the gods flip a coin, but in this case he’s perfect, his rough understatement suited for an intelligent man shaped by a life of being kicked around in the minor leagues. 

Tim Robbins was enough of a lanky goofball at this point in his life to be a great comic presence, shaking off calls by wagging his insensate melon and all gangly limbs in his wind up. But he’s a good enough actor to layer underneath the arrogance and numbskullery a sense of vulnerability and raw youth, becoming a student of the game under the wisdom of Annie and Crash. 

The three way relationship is something that’s only been handled as well as it was here by the French auteurs. A young man taken in hand by an experienced woman and a worldly man, even as he competes with his mentor for the woman’s affection. He’s the only one that doesn’t see how it’s going to go, and the way that Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner play that is great. One of the most important lesson a young person learns is how to fuck, and it’s a lesson that’s treated with humor and tenderness here in a way that American filmmakers have little innate knowledge of. And the pairing with baseball is sublime. Both things are a game with no clock, something that happens at a pace determined by the people involved. Both involve physical skill, but it’s skill that is at the beck and call of the mind. It’s a thinking person’s pursuit, but one that can’t be overthought or all is lost. It’s marked by slow build up and punctuated with moments of rapture. At least if you’re doing it right. 

The stripping down of the setting from the hallowed grounds of places like Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium to a dusty little park in the Carolina League completes the film. The stakes aren’t glory cheered on by tens of thousands of adoring fans. This game is played in front of each other; players and coaches, friends and family. The dynamics and relationships between people get to be expressed fully, the mythology of the game left aside for the root psychics of it that have made baseball the literary grandfather of the American pastimes. These games are played by people who, outside of a generational talent like Nuke LaLoosh, will never be remembered outside of a twenty mile radius from a worn down park on the edge of town. Minor league baseball is ritualized humanity, struggles played out by people who know what it is to struggle. 

One day I’ll write a goddamn book on this movie. Until then, safe to say that this mandatory in the cinematic canon.