Written by: Hannah Tran | October 9th, 2022
Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game (Austin Bragg/Meredith Bragg, 2022) 2 out of 4 stars.
You may have never known that pinball was illegal in New York, but after accusations that it allowed the mafia to steal money from children, the seemingly safe game was banned for nearly 30 years. Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game deals with the law’s misunderstanding of pinball as it chronicles the life of Roger Sharpe, an early-GQ writer who prove fundamental in overturning the ban in the 1970s. Starring Broadway actor Mike Faist, fresh off his movie turn in the 2021 West Side Story, this film provides a charming history of the game and a sentimental, albeit forgettable, story about a central figure within it.
While it may be difficult to see past the statement-making mustache that takes up an expansive area of Sharpe’s face, the movie itself acknowledges that Sharpe’s foremost quality is his so-called “safe” demeanor. Although a little zany, he’s not particularly gifted or interested in anything besides pinball. The filmmaking here isn’t far removed from his character. Although it makes some stylish attempts for flair, such as introducing a pseudo-documentary setup with an older version of Sharpe, the story almost feels too inoffensive and overwritten. The pseudo-documentary aspect only emphasizes this, but the 1970s storyline is far more adept, even if it is safe, while the meta framing device is unnecessary and a little condescending.
There are a lot of strong moments found in the film’s depiction of the case, including an energetic scene in which Sharpe plays pinball in court to prove that it’s a game of skill. Besides some fun scenes about pinball through history, however, the strongest moments in the film derive from Sharpe’s personal relationships. There’s a likable supporting cast, led by Crystal Reed (Incident in a Ghostland) taking on the role of a single mother with whom Sharpe begins a relationship. Their romance is particularly endearing, although a late introduction of Sharpe’s struggle with commitment seems poorly set up and is resolved by an expositional metaphor that is far too convenient.
Unfortunately, this device comes to define a lot of the movie, and a number of storylines are tied up in too neat of a bow by the conclusion. Sharpe gets things like a job, a girlfriend, and a win in court pretty easily. The narrative lacks the kind of tension that could have been derived from more complex dialogue, deeper exploration of its protagonist, and snappier editing. But if you want a detailed account of pinball’s lurid past and a nice story about family, Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game offers fascinating detail, a colorful ensemble, and a heartwarming story that isn’t half as flashy as its title.
[Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game premiered on Saturday, October 8, 2022 at HIFF, the Hamptons International Film Festival.]