Thursday, July 7, 2011

When It Was A Game: The Complete Collection Blu-ray Review

For the first time, all three HBO Sports specials: When It Was A Game (Peabody Award winner), When It Was A Game 2 and When It Was A Game 3, are now available in one collection.  The unique series spans baseball history from the 1930′s to the 1960′s in a glowing tribute to America’s national pastime.  This is a retrospective look at the glory days and the changing face of baseball, showing the game as the way one always imagined it – the way it was.  Filled with poetic narration, interviews, and remembrances from celebrities, stars, writers, and sportscasters, it is composed entirely of 8mm and 16mm home-movie footage and photographs taken by fans and  by the players themselves.

Film (3 out of 5 stars)

I originally requested this title because the description of it mentioned that it would give viewers the “opportunity to relive many precious, magical moments in baseball history…,” and it does offer that up to a point, but not as I had imagined it would.  For some reason, I was thinking that I would be allowed to see the highlights of past games or world series and see the plays that changed the outcome of the games.  Instead, this reverential retrospective shows us snippets of players playing the game but without any reference as to what game it is or setting up the historical outline of what happened before or why the game was important.
I quickly learned that while this wasn’t the legendary highlights of the sport like I imagined it would be, it was instead almost a treatise on baseball and it’s place in our society.  This is more of a philosophical piece filled with poems about baseball and commentators and narrators like Billy Crystal, Bob Costas, Dick Johnson, Donald Honig, Geraldo Rivera, Kevin Costner, Jason Robards, Roy Scheider, James Earl Jones, and more, waxing poetic about the game.  While I didn’t want to hear a ton of poetry about baseball, at least the series had the good sense to hire some great actors to read it.
As advertised, there’s a lot of focus on the players of the game like Roy Campanella, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Cy Young, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Micky Mantle and Roger Maris but other than newsreel footage and home movies shot by the players themselves, there really isn’t anything else to it.  It’s all surface level coverage and there’s no context for any of it.  The snippets of footage are so brief that none of it really serves a purpose.  I’m perfectly willing to accept that I’m not the target audience for this as I have only a passing familiarity with baseball and almost no knowledge of current players.  Perhaps hardcore fans don’t mind just letting the images of past players play the game wash over them as they listen to another ode to baseball.
There’s a few parts throughout this three part series that actually spend some time to cover a player like Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle who made a significant contribution to the game.  It’s at those points where the series gets more interesting since we are allowed to focus on one thing for more than ten seconds.  Seeing actual footage of something like Mickey Mantle’s farewell to the game has more impact since we are given the chance to understand the context of the footage and what it means to the man, the fans, and the game itself.  It’s just unfortunate that more of those kind of moments are allowed.  Out of the three series, I enjoyed the first one the most, since I knew the players better and because I love history.  The opportunity to see the legendary players but also the fields and stadiums that no longer exist was very interesting to me and the best part of the series.  I just wish that they had focused the series more on baseball’s highlights instead of a repetitious cycle of poems and random players playing the game.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

Considering that the footage that makes up this series is entirely taken from 8 and 16MM cameras, this 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks surprisingly good.  While there is plenty of evidence of scratches and other defects, it doesn’t detract from the overall quality because the rest of it looks better than expected.  It’s safe to say that this is probably the best that this footage will ever look.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The series offers an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo mix and a Spanish DTS Digital Surround 2.0 mix as well which is decent but it’s no home run.  Since we rarely get to hear the players it’s mostly just the dialogue from a narrator reading some poems or a commentator reflecting on his childhood memories of baseball and what it meant to them which is clear and easily understandable.  The period music also comes though well but I will take this opportunity to gripe about repeated songs and poems throughout the three series.  Once would have been enough for my tastes.

Special Features 

There are no special features on this disc.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)

This isn’t a highlights reel at all but instead more of a nostalgic look back at the glory days of baseball that has been captured on Blu-ray.   I wholeheartedly  agree with the premise of how the game was better back in the days before free agents, multi-million dollar contracts, and the rampant use of steroids and other performance enhancers.  The time period when the Yankees dominated the game and the players stayed with their team for years which allowed fans to develop a loyalty and relationship with the players that is almost non-existent today.  After seeing this, it just reinforces my previous opinion on how things have changed for the worse in the world of baseball.  It’s all become corporate now, but it’s always nice to take a look back at a more simple and pure time when players played baseball for the love of the game.
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