"Little Big Men" debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern.
There's an intriguing idea for a 30 for 30 entry in "Little Big Men," but it gets buried beneath subpar execution. Directors Al Szymanski and Peter Franchella (Szymanski is a long-time director and producer for Red Line Films, which often creates sports documentaries) rarely trust their story enough to get out of its way, and that results in much of the hour feeling over-produced. The success of most 30 for 30 entries comes down to whether the director found an interesting story. If the director did, then it becomes a question of whether the director was able to simply let the story tell itself. In most cases, both of these conditions have been met, but in a few cases, either the story has been uninteresting or the direction has been too showy. "Little Big Men" is a case of the latter.
The central story of "Little Big Men" is a fairly old one, but there's nothing saying it can't be told in a way that makes it involving all over again. The episode follows the story of the Kirkland, Washington, Little League team that won the 1982 Little League World Series in an unexpected upset victory over the team from Taiwan, which entered as a heavy favorite after several straight series where it had won the big prize. Buoyed by an excellent performance by pitcher Cody Webster, the Kirkland team became improbable and instant superstars in a country that loves a good underdog story, and Webster was briefly a media sensation at the age of 12. These kids were all amateurs, starting out playing ball as a lark and then gradually realizing they could make it all the way to the series. Is this something you've seen before? Of course. It's the stuff that sports movies are made of. But Szymanski and Francehlla show at least a willingness to get beneath the basics of the story and get into the effects of thrusting a bunch of regular kids onto a nation-wide stage this quickly.
Unfortunately, they're unwilling to just let the story tell itself. The biggest problem with the episode is the fact that the two lather on ridiculously pretentious narration throughout. There's no moment that they don't feel couldn't be underscored by a not-so-trenchant observation that just about anyone would make in the same situation, such as when the episode depicts the kids' dreams of winning the big game and the narration says, "Dreams are like that. The better they are, the more we expect to hear those dreaded words, 'It's time to wake up,'" or when the episode laments the fact that the kids suddenly appeared on such a huge stage with the chestnut, "It's called innocence. As valued as it is vulnerable." The narration is full of cliche bon mots about time slipping through the hourglass or about the preciousness of childhood, and it seems intent on turning 1982 into some sort of halcyon state for all of America, as much as it was for the boys at the center of the story. These boys are 40 now, and their longing for their glory days makes a sort of sense. Szymanski's similar longing makes less sense.
The best portion of this story is also the one that gets most glossed over. After the series victory, the team from Kirkland became a team the other Little League teams in the area longed to beat, and parents of kids on the opposing side would hurl nasty epithets at the Kirkland players, particularly Webster, a shy boy who was increasingly less confident in his fame. It created such a nasty environment that Webster, a solid pitcher with genuine and realistic hopes of making the Major Leagues someday, eventually quit baseball entirely, stringing along a half career throughout junior high and high school before abandoning the game entirely in college. The grown Webster says he's not conflicted, but the look in his eyes says otherwise. This is a guy who had something he once loved taken from him, simply because he was too good at it.
The story of a batch of kids who were simply too good coming under the wrath of adults who were more frustrated with those kids than their own kids probably were could be a compelling one, but Szymanski and Franchella spend far too much time on other things. There's a lengthy montage of all of the bad things that were happening in the U.S. in the late '70s and early '80s and several attempts that try far too hard to suggest that the Kirkland victory somehow bolstered the national mood enough to set the country on a good path again. Attempts like this to inflate a small sports story into some sort of nation-changing event always rub me the wrong way, and Szymanski and Franchella never earn it here. Similarly, the way they film the talking heads - head-on, filming the speaker from the neck up in extreme close-up with the speaker looking directly into the camera, - feels more like something out of a reality show than a documentary. They also fall a little too in love with cliche sports speak, like a lengthy montage where the various players wax rhapsodic about "mental toughness."
"Little Big Men" is too all over the place to register as one of the top-flight entries in this series, but the story might be strong enough to carry over everything else if Szymanski and Franchella could create anything like a sense of the love for the game of baseball that these kids held. Many of them coach Little League teams today, and now that the fervor over their win is essentially non-existent, they can look back on those events with a certain fondness. The best moments of the episode come when the directors simply sit back and observe who these men are now in comparison to the boys they were then, observing how a love for baseball defined them then and rather haunts them now. These are powerful moments, but Szymanski and Franchella inevitably ruin them by undercutting them with narration that spells out all subtext. It doesn't help that the film's appreciation of the game seems only superficial much of the time.
Baseball is a weird sport for America, traditionally a forward-thinking, ever-evolving nation, to have as its national pastime. To be sure, it was born here, and it's defined us as a nation more than any other sport. (Documentarian Ken Burns said that he made his first three films about the Civil War, baseball, and jazz because if you understood those three subjects, you'd understand America, and it makes sense to me.) But it's also a sport that seems endlessly trapped in a past that it will be unable to escape, a comparison to better days that possibly never existed. Then again, the longing for a past world we can no longer return to is also uniquely American. What's different about baseball is the way that it codifies that past world, makes it a statistical reality if you're willing to dig through box scores for long enough. And sometimes, in moments of purity like Cody Webster pitching that final, improbable out, it's a sport that seems somehow transcendent. The best baseball movies understand this fact and get out of the way of the purity of the game. "Little Big Men" seems to understand this fact every so often, but it finds itself more often than not tripping over its shoelaces on its way out onto the field.