Q&A: Alex Gibney discusses new scapegoats film
Alex Gibney has always been drawn to scapegoats, so it seems inevitable that he would eventually come to examine the subject in sports. He's a Red Sox fan, after all.
"Catching Hell," the latest film from Gibney, documents the often senseless assigning of blame by rabid fans in heartbreaking losses. He focuses particularly on Steve Bartman, the lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who by attempting to catch a foul ball in a 2003 playoff game at Wrigley Field, was blamed for contributing to the Cubs' collapse. (By reaching for the ball, Bartman arguably prevented left fielder Moises Alou from making the second out in the eighth inning where the Cubs went on to give up their lead, and later, to lose the series.)
Gibney's Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" (2006) and his 2010 documentary on lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," both explored individuals made to pay for situations either not entirely or not at all of their making.
"Catching Hell" premieres Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival and will later air on ESPN, which produced the movie. While finishing the final mix of the film, Gibney talked about "Catching Hell."
AP: How did you come to this project?
Gibney: It was proposed to me by ESPN but once I started to dig into it, it felt like more and more - I shouldn't call it my comfort zone - my discomfort zone. In other words, something I'm really interested in, which is the notion of scapegoats. I've dealt with that in a couple of films. This one, doing it in sports, seemed like a good fit.
AP: Why is that a theme you're drawn to?
Gibney: I stumbled into it, but once I stumbled, I got more and more interested in that idea. People seem to need a scapegoat. Sometimes it's political and sometimes it's personal. It's this weird desire to focus disappointment and anger on one person and one direction.
AP: Are you a fan of any baseball team?
Gibney: The Boston Red Sox. That's how I found a personal way into this story. Even though most of this film is about Bartman, my personal way into this was the story of Bill Buckner, who was the greatest scapegoat in Boston until they started to win a few World Series.
AP: People often forget that the Mets had already come back to tie the score when Buckner let the ball roll through his legs at first base, allowing New York to win the game.
Gibney: Correct. The game was tied. (Several plays before the error) the Red Sox were up by two runs and had two strikes on the batter with nobody on. If you can't close it out there, there's something wrong. So Buckner was kind of the capper. It did end the game and it was an image of great futility. But he became the guy. I just found that interesting that somehow people needed him or needed someone to become the guy.
AP: He's seemingly been "forgiven" or welcomed back into the fold by Red Sox fans.
Gibney: Somebody says it's an unfortunate way to put it because why should he be forgiven? But he is off the hook, in a sense, and that's what tends to happen. What do you need a scapegoat for if you don't have that displaced anger looking for a home?
AP: Bartman had even less to do with the Cubs losing that game.
Gibney: People tend to look for the weakest vessel in order to focus that rage or anger. There's no doubt that the happiest man about Steve Bartman should have been (former Cubs shortstop) Alex Gonzalez, who booted a sure double-play ball. But I think also the fans may have looked on it like he was one of their own. Here was a fan who should have pulled his hands back - I don't subscribe to that view, but I'm putting myself into the heads of the fans. It's always easier to blame somebody - and this is a kind of flaw in human nature - who looks innocent, who looks weak, who looks dorky. And Steve Bartman fit that bill.
AP: You tried to interview Bartman for this but were unable to, correct?
Gibney: We tried very hard. We reached out to his attorney. I sent him letters, sent him notes, sent him notes from other people. But he's decided that he's not going to talk anymore. That might change but I doubt it. I think he's just decided that there's no upside in talking. I'm not sure I agree, but I respect his decision.
AP What kind of a challenge is that? You've worked around the absence of a central figure in previous documentaries.
Gibney: In a way, that became almost more poetic: the guy who refuses to come forward, who refuses to take advantage of the publicity opportunities. He was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to do ads, to do card shows. You adamantly refused to take advantage of that. We know that he works in the Chicago area. He's surrounded by a group of coworkers and friends who like him but won't reveal anything about him or say anything about him. That testifies to a certain kind of loyalty. He's insistent on remaining anonymous. That in itself became an interesting part of the story. He's both Everyman and no man. Do you remember "The Odyssey"? When Odysseus meets the Cyclopes, the Cyclopes says 'Who are you?" and he says "No man."