Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game – Review

“There is a messy, scrappy honesty here that forms the film’s core and, when at its best, pays off with a gregarious, funny charm.”

by Ken Bakely

The more I think about it, the more curious I am about exactly how this movie works. Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game, directed by brothers Austin and Meredith Bragg, is clearly self-evaluating all the way through, and it’s in more ways than its visibly self-deprecating comedy. Telling the story of Roger Sharpe, who, in 1976, was at the forefront of a successful effort to overturn New York City’s decadeslong ban on pinball machines, it is consciously aware from the start that it would seem silly to assign deep metaphysical significance to the game of pinball. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t it? It is deeply interested in Roger and how it fictionalizes his life. When we meet him – as played by Mike Faist – he is a twentysomething, recently divorced writer with an unwieldy mustache, who has just moved to New York from Wisconsin. We watch as he develops an obsession with pinball, finds that it is prohibited because city officials in the 1940s painted it as a gambling racket, and wanted to seem like they were proactively going after organized crime, and starts a mini-crusade to overturn the rule. We watch as he starts dating Ellen (Crystal Reed), a fellow divorcée, and their relationship develops while he works to forge a bond with her young son, Seth (Christopher Convery). We watch as his pinball mission gradually outgrows his perch in the pages of GQ and into the halls of power. And then, at nearly every turn, when the story begins to take some overly grandiose flight of fancy, it is deflated by a contemporary Roger (Dennis Boutsikaris), who, in a documentary-style interview, chides the filmmakers for their choices.

This is more than an affectation or a stylistic decision. There comes a point when it feels like this choice is some kind of real-time way for the movie to check its own instincts, as it searches for the right approach for this material. It is openly fighting with itself – mostly for comedic effect, but also in a way that indicates something of a genuine struggle here. Pinball is certainly sincere about its David vs. Goliath story – it all culminates in a stirring sequence, apparently faithfully adapted from real life, in which Roger demonstrates that pinball is not a game of luck, but rather skill, calling each move and shot he makes before a hearing of the New York City Council committee which will vote to decriminalize the machines. But the movie can be a little cagey about exactly how it wants to frame this. Is it merely a story about overturning a ban imposed by inert politicians, or is it a deeper musing on performative politics used to mask a lack of action on other fronts? Roger takes particular umbrage when pointing out the irony that after the city first banned the game and seized the machines, the scraps were used to make new billy clubs for the police. It’s not an inherently unreasonable assumption that the movie would want to dig a little more – there is an entire thread about Roger squabbling with the magazine editor, who dismissively says that his research on this game should be a book instead of a magazine article, and then the editor of a coffee table book he subsequently works on, who dismissively implies that his writing is getting in the way of the pictures of machines that accompany them. 

It’s something on the movie’s mind, but not enough to seriously consider, lest it earn another rebuke from the Documentary Roger. This is to say nothing against Boutsikaris, who is very good here as he delivers his droll lines – whether in these interruptions or the sly narration that more directly carries the story –  but rather an observation that Pinball doesn’t quite know how to square its own presence; if there should be more or less to these proceedings. When the Braggs let their movie sail with more breezy confidence, these questions suddenly seem less important, because their work otherwise has the skill and acumen to stand pretty confidently on its own. Faist, who was so spectacular in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, is a buzzy, kinetic presence here, examining Roger’s growing confidence – sometimes in unearned leaps and bounds that will come back to bite him – as the story builds to this terrific finale; he and Reed have a warm and easy chemistry, and they are compelling together and separately. Ultimately, the movie’s sharpest instincts acknowledge the unusual contours of this tale, and even the strangeness of figuring out how to tell this story, within the confines of emphasizing its absurdities while examining its protagonist. There is a messy, scrappy honesty here that forms the film’s core and, when at its best, pays off with a gregarious, funny charm.

Watch: Prime Video