**½/**** Image B Sound B- Extras A-
directed by Aviva Kempner
by Walter Chaw Thirteen years in the making, Aviva Kempner's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is an exhaustive and affectionate, if tunnel-visioned, documentary about "the Jewish Jackie Robinson": Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg, who broke cultural barriers during the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin/Henry Ford years, just prior to the onset of WWII. Towering over his teammates at 6'4" and 210lbs, Greenberg became a stereotype-busting role model for an entire generation of Jewish youngsters and, unlike many of his modern athletic counterparts, Greenberg didn't take his responsibility for granted.
The film does a remarkable job of detailing both the ballplayer's prowess on the diamond and his sense of duty (as a non-Orthodox Jew) to the Jewish community that embraced him. As he says at one point in the film in regards to the rough racial smears offered by fans and opposing dugouts: "An Italian was a Wop or a Dago, an Irishman was a Mick, and a Jew was a Kike or a Sheeny. That's just the way it was. But I was the only Jew out there." Not always true, of course, but true enough to make Greenberg, in the words of super-attorney Alan Dershowitz, "the most important Jew of the 1930s."
The list of Greenberg's on-field accomplishments is a long and storied one: The only player to win the MVP award at two positions (first base, left field), he came within two of Babe Ruth's 60 home-run record in 1938 and even caught a whiff of Lou Gehrig's RBI record. The first baseball player to enlist in the war in Europe, trumping Pearl Harbor by several months, Greenberg left four-and-a-half years of his prime for foreign soil until 1945, when he lead the Tigers to a World Series victory. In 1946, he added to his trophy case with dinger and RBI crowns. As Kempner skews her focus on the cultural vibe, all these accomplishments paled next to Greenberg deciding to sit out Yom Kippur in 1934 in the heat of a pennant race, even though he wasn't a practicing Jew.
We cock an eyebrow, however, at how much anyone would've cared if Hammerin' Hank wasn't more renowned than other period Jewish ballplayers (Moe Berg, "Harry the Horse" Danning, Sid Gordon, going suspiciously unmentioned in the documentary). The question possibly being beside the point (who cares what any athlete does, after all, if he's not famous), what's a little stickier is the dawning realization that Ms. Kempner's film--dedicated to her late father, a Greenberg fanatic--isn't meant so much as reportage as adulation.
Packed to the gills with glowing testimonials from surviving teammates Birdie Tebbetts, Charlie Gehringer, and Hal Newhouser, from groupies and family members, and from folks like Walter Matthau, Dershowitz, and Michael Moriarty (whose grandfather was an ump), The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg can hardly contain its enthusiasm. Kempner's style is without flash, substituting a workmanlike knowledge of pace and a dedication to a sort of staid progression of still photo zoomed in on, interview, archival footage, film clip from period motion picture (not always relevant thematically, but lending good temporal placement), repeat. The aggregate is a "formula" documentary done extremely well: not artistically impressive and not meant to be. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a bulging photo album of carefully cropped idolization. Its saving grace is that the affable, unaffected Greenberg appears a worthy recipient of all that devotion.
The Fox DVD of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a treasure trove for baseball historians and fans of Greenberg alike. In addition to the film itself (presented in a handsome full frame 1.33:1 transfer with nice, clean stereo sound), Kempner offers a rich feature-length commentary that is as prepared and packed with information as the documentary it underscores. It's clear that after thirteen years toiling on the project, 95 minutes was just not enough time for Kempner to tell all that she wanted to. Her wealth of research also provides for twenty minutes of extra interview material with fans, teammates, and celebrity admirers, extensive director's notes on the production, and bios. Most puzzling about this disc, and consequently least welcome, is the inclusion of four reviews of the film from various publications, not a one of them credited to a name. It's self-aggrandizing and unpleasant, the equivalent of the first five pages of blurbs in a well-reviewed paperback. A trailer rounds out the presentation. Originally published: November 17, 2001.