'Babe' captures the man, the era

April 17, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It must have been the hand-eye. Nestled in that bosun's body, concealed in those meaty arms, lurking behind those tiny, narrow-set eyes there had to be something akin to a radar system -- computer driven, of course, so precisely engineered it could read the rotation on the ball, solve the intercept problem, flash the correct coordinates down the arms to the wrists while simultaneously unleashing the full strength of the trunk, all this in less than three-hundredths of a second.

And 714 times, the computer correctly calibrated the trajectory on the incoming object and counter-launched. The result was a crack so loud you'd wince, and the spectacle of a towering white horsehide parabola, like a 155-millimeter tracer shell riding gravity's rainbow out beyond infinity.

Yeah, Babe Ruth. Could that bub hit a baseball or what?

Now the Babe -- in all his athletic sophistication and social primitiveness -- is captured splendidly in "The Babe," with John Goodman in the title role. To cut to the chase, Goodman is terrific. He's big -- corpulent with life and appetite mythic -- yet also a God on a human scale, with enough pain and yearning showing to keep him human. A righty, he's even mastered a fair approximation of the Babe's titanic distaff swipe, though I wish he had broken his wrists a little bit more flexibly on the follow-through.

The film, written by the same John Fusco who wrote "Thunderheart," is a "typical" bio, in that it roams somewhat haphazardly over a life jam-packed with drama and accomplishment, picking out some things and ignoring others. Hardly anything, for example, passes on Babe's truly extraordinary accomplishments as a pitcher. And the Babe's love-hate thing with Lou Gehrig is only lightly covered.

Rightly or wrongly, Fusco chose to emphasize Babe the man over Babe the ballplayer. Fusco's "theory" of the Babe psychology is fairly standard stuff: The pain of being dumped at Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School created a man-child who yearned for his father's love and therefore continually sought adoration from others. Even when he was the toast of the world -- having driven 60 boomers into the stratosphere in 1927 -- he was a lonely boy. Worse, his great physical skills were chronically undercut by a painful self-indulgence -- almost a self-destructiveness. His ability to down gallons of soda pop and bushels of hot dogs was only the most innocent reflection of this; the movie recognizes, but does not dwell on, a parallel gargantuan appetite quenched in the bordellos of American League cities.

Thus it is that the two Titanic figures in the film aren't other ballplayers, but his two wives, played by Trini Alvarado and Kelly McGillis. The first represents Babe's embrace of "family life" and the "American dream" the Babe thought he yearned for and only later learned he could not be loyal to; the latter (and McGil

lis is terrific) was exactly what the doctor ordered, more a mommy than a wifey, who looked out for the Babe and fought for him and made his last years comfortable. The Babe never got a shot at managing, but toward the end he knew the love of a good woman.

Arthur Hiller's direction is restrained but manages to capture the seething excitement of the major leagues in the salad days of the '20s; the production values are terrific, particularly as great art direction re-creates vistas of the old ballparks. It's a movie with a heart as big as the Babe's and a story line as untidy as his eating binges.

'The Babe'

Starring John Goodman and Kelly McGillis.

Directed by Arthur Hiller.

Rated PG.

***

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