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The Natural: Director's Cut

Few sports have tickled the fancy of fiction like baseball, and, like the game or not, it's simple to see why. It's a game that emphasizes and isolates the major dramatic conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. It assumes the pretense of a team sport, but is really a series of individual tests of skill and character with only fleeting moments of team interaction. It's a series of Mexican stand-offs. Another great attribute in its favor as grist for drama, as detractors will eagerly point out, is that the sport's pace is slow with fleeting moments of sudden action, giving artists plenty of time to develop characters, while giving fans ample time to mythologize. No work of fiction has so ably explored the mythical and dramatic properties of the national pastime as Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural, and few have so incisively captured what fans love about the game, or even sport in general. Barry Levinson's beautifully rendered 1984 film adaptation of this revered book also stands out as a definitive achievement in the pantheon of sports movies.

As a young boy, Roy Hobbs learns the game of baseball from his father, playing catch in the rolling, golden fields of their idyllic family farm. After his father's early death, Roy fashions himself a special bat honed from the trunk of a lightning-split oak tree. He dreams that one day people will call him the best that ever played the game — and he has the pitching and hitting skills to make it a reality. Buoyed by youth — and the innocent love of the girl next door — teenage Roy sets out for Chicago to impress the major league scouts. But on the verge of his introduction into the limelight, his thirst for approbation lands him in the wrong company, and before it even starts his career is suddenly over. But not quite. Sixteen years after this twist of fate derails Roy's aspirations, he emerges from obscurity. Although he's old enough to retire, he's reluctantly taken on as a rookie by the struggling Major League outfit The New York Knights. No longer able to pitch, Roy stakes his place as the best hitter in the league and inspires his teammates to approach the game with same purity of purpose with which he learned the game as child — that is, when his wisdom overcomes his moral frailties to protect him from the corrupting influences swarming around and within the game.

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Borrowing from classical mythological structures — with some direct correlations to Arthurian Legends and the tale of the Fisher King, in particular — The Natural is drawn with deliberately broad symbolic strokes. Purity is reflected by glowing halos of golden light and corruption by shadows and seclusion. But rather than belaboring the obvious throughout, director Levinson effectively uses this aesthetic as a canvas on which he paints the narrative with nuance and subtlety. It is, after all, a story about ambiguity and uncertainty as much as it's a fable about the conflict between innocence and cynicism. The combination is deeply affecting, emotionally and intellectually. As it pertains to the subject of sport, The Natural asserts with great conviction that what enamors us so with great athletes is the heightened circumstances within which they strive to escape human constraints in pursuit of perfect moments of pure grace. To do so, for Roy Hobbs, it means returning spiritually to that child inside that plays for the love of the game — and, like in the similarly themed and sadly under-appreciated minor masterpiece Tin Cup, the results are sublime. Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, and as incongruous as it is watching him play a teenager in the early scenes, no other actor could've done the role justice. Redford himself is an iconic figure; a lone, blue-eyed, boyishly smiling, golden figure representing the mythology of the traditional WASP-y American male when, in the 1970s, Hollywood became enamored of grittier leading men like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson. Bringing this cultural cachet to the role of Roy Hobbs, Redford's typically thoughtful performance is imbued with an aura of magic and destiny. The supporting cast is excellent, including nearly definitive performances by Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth, as well as solid turns by Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Darren McGavin, and Glenn Close. The gorgeous cinematography is by Caleb Deschanel, and Randy Newman has never written a better, more memorable score. This is one of the great American movies.

Sony's two-disc release of The Natural: Director's Cut offers an expanded version of the film overseen by director Barry Levinson, most of which is most noticeable in the opening sequences. Levinson offers an intro (2 min.) explaining that this new edit is closer to the film's "original design," although he also suggests that the original theatrical cut is a valid alternate version, and not one that he intends to diminish. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) looks lush and flawless, featuring a better source-print than the original disc, while the new DD 5.1 audio highlights Randy Newman's iconic themes. Disc Two offers a wealth of extras for the movie's fans, including the three-part "When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural" (50 min.), which covers the film's evolution from the screenplay adaptation to casting, shooting, and post-production. Also on hand is "Clubhouse Conversations" with reflections on the game by George Will, Bob Costas, and others (15 min.), "A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus" (17 min.), "Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural" (9 min.), and "The Heart of The Natural" with comments from Cal Ripken Jr., which returns from the original DVD release (40 min.). Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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