Catching Hell: Tribeca Review

Filmmaker Alex Gibney dissects an infamous sports incident in fascinating and wildly entertaining detail.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney dissects an infamous sports incident in fascinating and wildly entertaining detail.


You’ll never attend a sporting event in quite the same way after seeing Alex Gibney’s alternately hilarious and disturbing documentary about the thin line between sports fandom and mania. Concentrating on the infamous incident during the 2003 National League Championship Series in which a Chicago Cubs fan deflected a ball, Catching Hell reveals itself to be a strikingly resonant morality tale. The film recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and will air on ESPN this fall as part of its “30 for 30” series of documentary sports films.

To recap for those who somehow missed the well-publicized story, the event took place during the sixth game of the series between the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series title in nearly a century, and had long suffered under the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” inflicted in 1945 by an angry fan after his animal companion was ejected from the stadium.

With only five outs remaining in the game and the Cubs enjoying a comfortable lead, a foul ball was hit in the direction of left fielder Moises Alou. But a diehard fan, Steve Bartman, reached for the ball, knocking it away from Alou’s glove and creating an instant firestorm.

Spurred on by Alou’s angry reaction, the fans too such ire that the hapless Bartman had to be escorted out by stadium security before he was physically assaulted. As he was led away through a torrent of catcalls, threats and thrown objects, one fan shouted “Put a twelve gauge in his mouth and pull the trigger!” The Cubs would go on to lose the game and the next night the series, and thanks to the endless media coverage and constant replays, Bartman, a mild-mannered Little League coach, quickly became the most hated man in Chicago.

The Oscar-winning Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) uses the incident as a springboard for a general meditation on the psychology of rabid sports fans and the phenomenon of scapegoating. To buttress his thesis, he includes the story of Bill Buckner, the Red Sox first baseman who let a ground ball go through his legs during Game Six of the 1986 World Series and was immediately blamed for the failure of the Sox, another team with a checkered history, to win the Series.

Employing interviews with many of the figures involved, including sports journalists, players, stadium officials, security guards and such fans as author Scott Turow (who comments that there’s a “quasi-spiritual quality to being a Cubs fan”), Gibney dissects the story in fascinating detail. After the event, Bartman essentially went into hiding, becoming, as one commentator puts it, “the J.D. Salinger of Cubs fans.” 

The filmmaker employs inventive cinematic techniques to good effect, including a comic-book style reenactment of Bartman being shanghaied by an aggressive reporter in a parking garage.

The latest edition of ESPN’s increasingly invaluable series of sports docs made by notable directors, the wildly entertaining Catching Hell is accessible enough to be enjoyed by even those who wouldn’t dream of setting foot inside a stadium. 


Tribeca Film Festival (ESPN Films).
Production: Jigsaw Productions.
Director/screenwriter: Alex Gibney.
Producers: Gary Cohen, Alison Ellwood, Libby Geist, Matthew McDonald.
Executive producers: Gary Cohen, Alex Gibney.
Director of photography: Keith Walker.
Editor: Alison Ellwood.
Music: David Kahne.
Not rated, 102 min.