At Tribeca: Alex Gibney Talks Catching Hell and the Mystery of Steve Bartman


Alex Gibney wasn't even sure he wanted to make a movie about Steve Bartman in the first place.

"I was constantly confronted with my own reservations about should I be doing this film. The guy doesn't want to be outed, he doesn't want people to talk about him anymore, so why should I do it?" Gibney said. "I answered that question by saying I thought the story was important enough -- and the idea of understanding this process was important enough -- that it was worth doing that story."

Once he did, though, Gibney really wanted to get Steve Bartman to cooperate.

"I was very forthright," he said. "I knew that people had been trying to talk to him for a long, long time. I wrote a letter to him -- I know it got to him. I started having conversations with his lawyer. I came up with all sorts of good reasons why I thought he should cooperate. Why I thought this would move beyond -- it would be, in a way, his opportunity to move beyond -- and also, I tried to pitch him on the idea that it might do a whole lot of other people some good. But my argument was not successful." Later, Gibney revealed that he even showed an early cut of Catching Hell to Bartman (through his lawyers), just to prove that he wasn't going to have "fun at his expense." Still, no dice.

Fortunately, not getting his cooperation was a good thing.

Gibney told Connelly that not having Bartman led to a creative breakthrough, of sorts. "There's a character here saying no, saying that he wants to be anonymous. That, ultimately, has to be part of the movie. So I became OK with it, and in a peculiar way, I think that the fact that he's not in the film -- at least not in the film as an interview subject -- works in a funny way. [...] Sometimes, when people don't talk, it pushes you to discover other things that you might not have discovered."

If Bartman happens to be reading this, though, Gibney has some questions.

"The first question I would have asked him, is to take me through what happened. Because I want to know what he felt, and whether he felt the animus -- whether he understood right away what was happening -- and why," Gibney said about what he would have asked Bartman if he ever did get an interview. "The next question I would have asked him is, 'Why did you decide it was so important for you not to come forward?' If you play it out in your head, I think there is a pretty good argument to say that if you had gone and taken a bow -- say in front of a lot of people -- or if you had come forward and hadn't made yourself so anonymous, then a lot of this might have gone away. I'm not saying it would have, I'm just saying there's an argument to be made for that."

Alex Gibney was probably a big fan of Lost.

"I'm actually a big fan of flashbacks. They're considered to be sort of a no-no, but I love them," Gibney said about his decision to bookend the film with footage of former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner (who, like Bartman, is an infamous postseason scapegoat). "One of my favorite fiction films is an old black and white film noir called Out of the Past; it's all about flashbacks. Because I think if you have a narrative momentum going forward, just at that moment when you want to know, 'What's going to happen next?' sometimes you can flashback, and there's a whole other story to be told. So when you come back to that moment, it's like, 'Oh, I get it now.'"

Directing a movie about sports is not as far outside Gibney's wheelhouse as you might assume if you only know him from Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

"Scapegoats, really. I've dealt with scapegoats in other films," Gibney said, when asked how Catching Hell fits into his oeuvre. While he hasn't done any sports films before, the story of Bartman spoke to him on the basic level of assessing blame to the wrong person. "In Taxi to the Dark Side, that was the famous phrase about the folks in Abu Gharib. 'A few bad apples.' A lot of the lower down soldiers, I think were definitely scapegoated -- I'm not saying they weren't responsible for doing some very bad stuff. I think even peculiarly enough, Jack Abramhoff in Casino Jack and the United States of Money. He did wrong, but there's no doubt that he wasn't the only bad apple in Washington."

Not that he hasn't been bitten by the sports bug.

Gibney revealed that he's completed a documentary about Lance Armstrong that would be coming out soon via Sony. "I think it's pretty interesting."

Don't cry for Steve Bartman (even though you might if you see Catching Hell).

"Steve Bartman may be living exactly the life he wants," Gibney allowed when confronted with the idea that perhaps Bartman isn't necessarily a martyr. "Which is to say, working at a job he likes with some people he enjoys. We don't know enough about it, to really know. I don't necessarily think that his life has been destroyed."

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  • carg0 says:

    i remember that night crystal clear, as im sure do a lot (if not every) cubs fan. i wasn't there physically but, just watching at home, you could feel the building excitement and apprehension. it was unlike anything i've ever witnessed and it was affecting everyone that night. that's why Alou, the outfielder, exploded with anger when he didn't make the catch.
    what followed afterwards was like something out of the Twilight Zone. the Cubs, who were still up 3-0 and weren't in any danger whatsoever, suddenly couldn't get anyone out and gave up 8 consecutive runs. it was over in the blink of an eye.
    i admire Bartman, though, for refusing to give these people (like Gibney) what they want. these people who act as though they have this god-given right to exploit anyone's personal experiences, whether good or bad, for their own personal gains. i say fuck'em. it's bad enough the Cubs organization did nothing to stick up for Bartman after the incident, to say nothing of the vilification he's received from the fans.
    just leave the man alone.

  • bailey says:

    I saw the film today. You should too before subjecting Gibney to your "these people" bullshit.