Straight Over the Top
By Sarah Stegall
Written and Directed by David Duchovny
|"If you just understood baseball better, all those questions would
be answered. The aliens, the conspiracies, they would all in their
way be answered by the baseball gods." -- Arthur Dales
The really great movies about baseball--"Bull Durham", "A League of Their Own", "Field of Dreams"--are not about winning. They are about the passion for the game, not the lust for victory. They celebrate the game even when the team loses, even when dedication to what is, essentially, a useless but perfect pastime leaves a life in ruins. Ultimately, I think the appeal of baseball is probably as inexplicable as love itself. Tonight's X-File, "The Unnatural", devotes itself to unravelling that mystery by exploring the matrix in which the game is played: competition, mystery, luck, passion, and the physics of horsehide and wood. In the course of it, we learn new lessons about ourselves as humans, through the story of an alien who loved baseball.
Rookie writer/director David Duchovny steps up to the plate with a fine story about the Negro Leagues and the brotherhood of the bat. While mulling over fifty-year-old box scores, the DNA of baseball, he discovers a photograph of the alien bounty hunter we have met before (Brian Thompson, from "Colony/Endgame") in a dusty Roswell, NM bush league baseball report. He tracks down Officer Arthur Dales (M. Emmet Walsh) to ask about the bounty hunter. Dales unfolds a tale of bigotry and baseball, about an alien hated by his own people for mixing with humans, hated by white racists because he assumes the form of a black man. Josh "X" Exley (Jesse L. Martin) is a fabulous hitter for the Roswell Grays who stands on the edge of breaking the Babe's home run record. Although he's playing in the bush leagues, so that the score won't count, it's enough of a sensation to the Southwestern fans of 1947 that he attracts more attention than he wants. Wanted posters announce a bounty on his head and the local police assign Officer Dales (the younger version is played by Frederic Lane) to guard him. As they travel together, Dales learns X's secret, and comes to love him as a brother. But when the alien bounty hunter sent to punish him for his betrayal of their race insists that X reveal his "true" face as an alien, X insists that his human face is his true face, and dies as a human.
Duchovny exploits many talents here, not least his passion for baseball, in a well crafted tale. As a director, his transitions between the modern frame tale and the 1947 story are innovative and interesting: in one scene he drives the camera between Mulder and Dales to focus on an old scene from "Colony", taking us through a television to the earlier tale in a wonderful visual metaphor for The X-Files itself. He handles extremes of dramatic tension very well, as in the teaser, where a light-hearted baseball game turns deadly when the Ku Klux Klan rides onto the field. As a writer, his dialog is crisp, his insight into Mulder, obviously, unparallelled, and his timing exquisite. As an actor he absolutely nails Mulder, of course. We haven't seen such a relaxed, funny, natural Mulder in a while. As a writer, he avoids some pretty sticky quicksand, opting to transition from a potentially mawkish death scene at the end of Act Four to a warm, funny ending where Mulder teaches Scully to hit a baseball. His own gamine sense of humor suffuses this story with wit, vivacity, and intelligence. The ending, with Scully's pop fly balls arcing into a sky where they strike sparks among the stars, is poetic, fun, and touching all at once.
Wisely, Duchovny surrounds himself with first class talent to help carry the load. M. Emmet Walsh turns in his patented crusty-codger routine, which only highlights the moment when his memory of X's death breaks through the armor and leaves us with a final glimpse of the pain inside him. Jesse Martin infuses his black/alien baseball hero with gentleness, warmth, and sympathy. Exley's modest demeanor and courageous end are elegantly rendered, giving us a sweet and humble character with whom we instantly identify. Frederic Lane portrays the younger Dales as a man of integrity and honor, whose loyalty to his friend supersedes his duty to his badge. Composer Mark Snow surprises us with a laid-back, lazy, blues-tinged score perfectly suited to the sedentary, low-key pace of baseball. Even the cameos are cute: Daniel Ducovny as a ballplayer with the minor league All-Stars, Vin Scully (Dana's namesake) announcing an old game on Mulder's TV.
If I have any complaint about this story, it is that there was too little of Dana Scully in it. Gillian Anderson handles her small but sparkling part with her usual panache, giving us a kinder, gentler, more self-sufficient and self-confident Scully than we've seen recently. Duchovny writes her part as if he actually likes women; she is strong without being masculine, smart without being aloof, a feminine woman who can hold her own both intellectually and emotionally with her partner. This is an amazingly well done part, considering how little screen time Anderson had and considering that this is Duchovny's first time at bat in this particular league.
Duchovny's ability to tie in the ongoing X-Files conspiracy arc, bigotry from two angles, and the mysticism of baseball into a comic tragedy like this is a rare gift. He shows promise as both a writer and a director, and I eagerly await more from him. Duchovny has hit this one clear out of the ballpark, and I'm giving him The Wave. "The Unnatural" gets five sunflower seeds out of five.
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