Alex Gibney’s ‘Catching Hell’: The Anguish of What Might Have Been

Section 4, Row 8, Seat 113. A hand points toward the empty seat at Wrigley Field, now a tourist destination, as Alex Gibney describes it: “The anguish of what might have been,” he says, “The tombstone where hope was buried.” The camera moves, imagining the movement of the hand that reached out for a baseball that came its way on 14 October 2003. It was the eighth inning of Game Six of the National League Championship Series. The ball was hit by Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo, the hand belonged to Cubs fan Steve Bartman.

And the moment is the focus of Catching Hell. Airing 27 September on ESPN, Gibney’s documentary looks at the “Bartman incident” from multiple angles and in many contexts, beginning with a comparison between it and another famous sports disaster, Bill Buckner’s error in the 1986 World Series. For Red Sox fan Gibney, this comparison carries particular weight. In each cases, a team battling an apparent curse was undone by a series of mistakes, and in each case, that undoing was ascribed to a single instant. Photos and footage and a slow motion reenactment of Buckner’s error remind you that it “remains an iconic image of futility.”

Looking back now, Buckner is still visibly pained — by the memory of the event, but even more by the abuse he suffered from Boston fans and national media. (Catching Hell doesn’t refer to the recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode featuring Buckner missing another baseball, this one tossed by Larry David). As Gibney notes his own torment (“I couldn’t sleep for a week” after the fateful game), he also probes the recollections by others, including sports journalists like Bob Ryan and Ron Borges (“You can’t overrate the what happened there, it broke the hearts of people in six states!”). Buckner’s error, intones a TV announcer, is “engraved on America’s mind.”

Even as the film rehearses the many other ways the Red Sox lost that game and that series, “America’s mind” remains remarkably inflexible. Catching Hell considers why that might be, and in particular, how media shape it or egg it on. For Bartman, the onslaught was instantaneous — his face was all over TV. And as the film replays that footage of Bartman’s strangely distanced look, his green turtleneck and headphones (“He seemed somewhat in his own world,” suggests one observer), under commentary by announcers and brutal invective from fans in the stands, the moment is “engraved” again.

And yet its meanings remain elusive. “Out of 40,000 seats,” wonders Gibney in the documentary’s opening moments, “What are the odds that a ball will seek you out?” Catching Hell goes on to imagine how “you” might respond, whether you, like the several other fans in Bartman’s vicinity that night, might reach for the ball, for the chance at a foul ball hit out of a Major League park. It shows those other fans, and interviews some of them, denoting their closeness to Bartman: Pat Looney, a pub owner, sat “five seats from Bartman,” and Laurie Holmes, an attorney, was “two seats from Bartman.” As they rewatch the moment on a laptop and marvel at what they didn’t see or didn’t do at the time (Looney sees himself now, and insists, “It looks like I’m pointing at Bartman,” though he was not), sales rep Jim Cuthbert, then sitting “15 rows behind Bartman,” nods as he recalls his decision to harass him: “I went down to go get my two cents worth, I guess.”

The film includes interviews with reporters, like Dane Placko, who think back on their part in creating the hysteria (“If we had something to do with this young man’s life and how he’s had to live it since then, I feel bad about it”), fans like Scott Turow (“The bloody Marlins just never stopped hitting, they just hit and hit and hit”), and Cubs, like Eric Karros (“As a player, I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, here it goes, the wheels are coming off”) and even Moises Alou, the outfielder who didn’t catch the ball that Bartman reached for.

Here Gibney visits Alou in the Dominican Republic, seeking an answer to a lingering question (could he have caught the ball if Bartman hadn’t reached?) and raising another one in his description of the DR: “It’s a poor country where power lines are festooned with thickets of wires leaching electricity into needy homes, but in the sandlots of the stadiums there are dreams of success. Per capita, the DR sends a higher percentage of kids to the major leagues than any other country in the world.”

Setting aside the exploitative economics and politics of Major League Baseball, sort of, the film returns to the incident, in an interview with an Ohio Unitarian minister who used it as the basis of a sermon on scapegoating, tied, however creatively, to the Red Sox curse of the bill goat (“We have to think about what damage the idea of the scapegoat does,” says Kathleen Rolenz, not only to those who are scapegoated, but also “to those people that are jeering and berating the scapegoat”).

Such contemplation is a frame for Catching Hell‘s most affecting and bracing insight, that what we’re really talking about here is someone who remains off screen. The film reminds you of that absence, so structuring and so haunting. It reminds you of all the times you’ve seen the shot of Bartman looking lonely in the stands, or replay the reach of his hand or here, see footage of his journey that night, from the stands to the security guards’ dispatch room, and again, see it reenacted, a point of view camera that offers no subject. And Gibney here shows the monitors that surrounded him the station that night, as security guard Erika Amundsen, who led Bartman to safety, from his seat, from the area where other fans were pelting him with beer and abuse (“Go to prison!” yells one onlooker, “Put a 12 gauge in his mouth and pull the trigger!” says another), describes him. He was “really quiet,” she says, “Shaken.”

The camera pulls out of that reimagined dispatch room, monitors everywhere, showing and reshowing the incident. “This must have been a strange moment for Bartman,” says Gibney, “He had been in the middle of frenzy in the stands without knowing exactly what happened. Now suddenly, he was on the outside looking in, at himself. Was this the first moment, Bartman realized he was the one?”

The moment is brilliant. Whether or not Bartman thought any such thing, the point is the movie’s own imagining. Much as he has done in his Academy Award-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side or Casino Jack, Gibney here documents a subject who remains off screen — whether because he’s dead, in the case of the Afghan farmer and cab driver Dilawar, or in prison, in the case of Jack Abramoff. Catching Hell is premised on Bartman’s absence, his refusal to be interviewed as this intimates the pain he endures, but also his absence in the many images made of him, and the ongoing needs of observers to define and possess him. As fans and bullies and journalists and even Gibney recreate and imagine him, Bartman is yet unseen, “quiet,” elusive. The curse might never be lifted or it might. Bartman, for now, remains off screen, an empty seat.

RATING 9 / 10