1977 was a tumultuous year for the city of New York: the soap opera feud between Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and other Yankees dominated the baseball season, the upcoming mayoral election promised change, and the record-setting climate led to a major blackout and riots.
Oh, and the “Son of Sam“, arguably the most infamous serial killer in history, rampaged the city.
All of this sets the stage for Jonathan Mahler’s book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, and from that, the ESPN mini-series Bronx is Burning. I’ve seen the series before but recently acquired the DVD set and below are a few of my thoughts.
While the series is primarily about the Yankees and their pursuit of the first World Series in the Steinbrenner era, the Son of Sam subplot is substantially and capably covered. What sets Bronx is Burning apart is the way they interweave the two stories: Steinbrenner is shown (in typical fashion) worrying about the Son of Sam scaring off fans, and the detectives on the Son of Sam case are shown working on reports while half-watching the Yankees grind through their season.
Speaking of Steinbrenner, Oliver Platt’s portrayal of the eccentric, obsessed owner is simply a joy to watch. Platt not only nails the accent, but he nails the facial expressions and body language too. It would have been easy to paint the picture of Steinbrenner as a demon, but Platt makes him a very believable guy who wants to win, no matter what the cost. Even his costumes are excellent (particularly the suit with white shoes, and the suit with the turtleneck sweater).
Steinbrenner’s main rival, Billy Martin, is played by John Torturro, who also excels in his role. Scenes which Steinbrenner and Martin share are easily the most compelling, and that’s due in large part to Torturro’s ability to mimick Billy Martin’s bi-polar personality. He comes across as extremely passionate and extremely old school, a guy who doesn’t like the prima donnas generated by athletes (one in particular) in the 70s (wonder what he’d think now?).
(Interesting sidenote: Howard Cosell, the man who originally said, “ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning” while calling Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, was played by John Torturro in another great docu-drama, Monday Night Mayhem.)
Reggie Jackson (the aforementioned “one in particular”) and Thurman Munson are also tremendously cast and played, and the two actors do a great job of being almost complete opposites, setting the tension for many of the conflicts in the series.
Another thing I liked about the series was how it mixed in 1977 era video in with the new video. Most of the baseball action shown is from 1977 video, but rather than show the faces of the real players, the modern video is edited in nearly seamlessly and with no distraction. While most of the modern video looks authentic (great set design and props), the baseball video is a little bit suspect, as it appears to be shot in front of a green screen. But let’s be clear: this isn’t just a story of the players on the field, it’s a story between players on and off the field, so while a larger budget could have made the baseball video more believable, the compromise they made works very well.
Finally, since 1977 was around the birth of punk, The Ramones are heavily included in the soundtrack during montages, while an understated score is present for the Son of Sam murders and investigation scenes. The music choice is excellent, giving the impression of an ominous present but a hopeful future. If you’re a baseball fan, if you’re a history buff, or if you’re a fan of New York, you owe it to yourself to watch this incredibly enjoyable mini-series.