While it was indeed painful to watch the events of the night unfold (Moises Alou’s reaction to Bartman, Alex Gonzales’ error on a sure thing double play, the Marlin’s 8-run rally), Alex Gibney’s documentary did more than simply talk about an infamous man that people know almost nothing about. Instead, Gibney tells the story of a night in which 40,000 fans let nearly 100 years of disappointment on one guy who made an honest, human mistake.
What makes Catching Hell so interesting is the way in which Gibney dissects every possible angle of the game. He sets the stage by reviewing the Bill Buckner error of the 1986 World Series, pointing out that Buckner may have missed the ball, but it was preceeded by one pitcher loading the bases and another throwing a wild pitch. Buckner just had the bad timing of being last and the most easily remembered. Gibney’s driving question about Bartman comes out right then and there: did he actually cause the Cubs to lose or did they lose it themselves?
Gibney also questions the mob mentality that overtook Wrigley Field and Chicago following the incident. Several of his interview subjects mention that all of the sudden, every fan in the park thought the game and season was over when there was still an inning and a half of baseball to play. The crowd starts chants of “asshole” directed at Bartman. They throw beer on him. One piece of footage featured a fan yelling “put a 12-gauge in his mouth and pull the trigger!” It’s a shameful sight that actually hit closer to home as a Cubs fan than rewatching footage of the actual game. Wrigley Field is supposed to be the Friendly Confines after all.
The most riveting part of Gibney’s documentary is the way he humanizes Bartman. He mentions that Bartman was at the game with two friends, both of whom appear to be trying to distance themselves from him and who left him alone as soon as they could. He interviews the reporter who badgered him right after incident and a fan who was thrown out of the game for harrassing him. Most heartbreakingly, Gibney talked to the security guard that was with Bartman in the aftermath, watching him process what happened and seeing he wasn’t concerned with himself, but whether the Cubs won or lost. Anyone that still hates the man after watching Catching Hell probably has no capacity for sympathy in them.
On the surface, Catching Hell is about scapegoats and the assignment of blame in sports, but deeper, Gibney offers brilliant commentary on the idea of fandom. Gibney only interviews two players on that Cubs team, Alou and first baseman Eric Karros, talking mostly to people that were in the stands or covering the game that night, clearly pulling the film away from the field and into the seats. Did the crowd at Wrigley that night actually lose the game? It’s a big question that Gibney wisely leaves to the viewer, but one that leads to a rabbit hole of questions about the notion of being a fan and the lengths we go to to support teams in our culture.