The Bronx Is Burning

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6-7 p.m., Monday, July 9
ESPN


The best baseball movies are able to strike an emotional chord because of the very nature of the game. With its ideal balance of individual talent and teamwork, of sportsmanship and competitiveness, of skill and luck, baseball reflects American ideals. It can also reflect the tenor of the times.

"The Bronx Is Burning," an eight-part ESPN miniseries, wants to demonstrate the influence of historical events on baseball and vice versa, but despite some fine performances, it fails to show a connection. At least not in the first three hours made available for review.

The mini, based on Jonathan Mahler's best-seller, looks at New York and the Yankees in the summer of 1977. The Yanks, with the most storied history in all of baseball, are still the class of the major leagues, but they've slipped a notch. The previous fall, they were swept in the World Series by Cincinnati. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is determined to fix things, and his sees free-agent slugger Reggie Jackson as the answer.

At the same time, the city is preoccupied with a three-way race for mayor and the terror inspired by the serial killer known as the Son of Sam.

Screenplay scribes James Solomon and Gordon Greisman capture the pressures and personalities in the Yankee clubhouse and, to a lesser degree, the anxiety of New Yorkers, but not how any of this is interrelated.

Given the complexity of urban problems, it's not surprising that the more compelling story unravels at Yankee Stadium. Nearly every day, a power struggle occurs among team manager Billy Martin (John Turturro), Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt with a Donald Trump-style wig), boastful Jackson (Daniel Sunjata of "Rescue Me") and, occasionally, team captain Thurman Munson (Eric Jensen). We know -- or can easily look up -- how the season ends, so there's no surprise there. What makes or breaks the show is how well it reconstructs the drama along the way. On that count, "Bronx" is a mixed bag.

Martin, a cocky, argumentative figure by all, is sympathetically portrayed by Turturro, who finds in the skipper a quiet desperation and a surprising willingness to compromise for the sake of the team. Sunjata's Jackson, on the other hand, perfectly reflects the sluggers' image -- smart, arrogant, brash and eager to make himself out to be the victim of any controversy. Also effective are Jensen and Kevin Conway, who plays team president Gabe Paul.

And then there's Platt as Steinbrenner, one of the season's more unfortunate casting choices. Platt, a gifted actor in other projects, plays the Yankees owner as a strong-willed buffoon, as though it was a sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Where, you soon wonder, are Moe and Larry?

The ballpark effects aren't entirely convincing, but director Jeremiah Chechik does fairly well with a small-screen budget. Baseball fans will be impressed with this attempt to pierce the inner dynamics of a team in transition. Those in search of a larger meaning and a bigger picture may come away disappointed.

After Monday's premiere, the mini moves to 7 p.m. PST Tuesdays.

THE BRONX IS BURNING
ESPN
Tollin/Robbins Prods.
Credits:
Executive producers: Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins, Joe Davola, Jim Solomon, Gordon Greisman
Producers: Jeremiah Chechik, Bill Johnson
Director: Jeremiah Chechik
Teleplay: Jim Solomon, Gordon Greisman
Based on the book by: Jonathan Mahler
Director of photography: Doug Koch
Production designer: Mario R. Ventenilla
Editor: Jerry Greenberg
Music: Tree Adams
Set designer: Jacqueline Jacobson Scarfo
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Paul Schnee
Cast:
Billy Martin: John Turturro
George Steinbrenner: Oliver Platt
Reggie Jackson: Daniel Sunjata
Gabe Paul: Kevin Conway
Joseph Borelli: Dan Lauria
Jimmy Breslin: Michael Rispoli
Thurman Munson: Eric Jensen
Bill White: Charles S. Dutton
Fran Healy: Loren Dean
Paul Blair: Seth Gilliam
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