Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
I’m going to start my review of ESPN’s miniseries The Bronx Is Burning with an admission: I’m a lifelong Yankee fan. Notice I said “Yankee” fan and not “Yankees” fan. Anyone that uses the latter is a fake, a phony and a fraud. Any true “Yankee” fan knows that the team should be addressed in the singular not the plural. (Editor's Note: This may be true, but any true "BASEBALL" fan would never say either.) Such minutiae may seem excessive to many reading this review, but just to show that I’m not the only one focusing on such details, one only need to look at the reviews of The Bronx Is Burning on IMDB and other websites. “Billy Martin didn’t have ears that big”, “Billy didn’t sound like a Texan”, “George Steinbrenner couldn’t have been THAT annoying.” (Editor's Note: Yes he could.) These are just a few of the comments coming from people who don’t seem to like the series so far and yet they are wrong on all counts. When at first hearing that John Turturro and Oliver Platt were playing Martin and Steinbrenner, I wondered whether I’d be able to suspend my belief having seen so much of the actual duo during my time in New York. After watching the first two episodes however, I can truly say that from now on, when I see the real Martin and Steinbrenner, I will be thinking of Turturro and Platt- they are that good.
A second admission: The Bronx Is Burning will play better to New Yorkers than to the rest of the country, just as a subway series will get higher ratings in the New York area. This really doesn’t matter to me, because seeing actual footage of Ed Koch standing in front of a subway entrance telling people that then mayor Abe Beam “couldn’t run a second rate candy store” is absolutely priceless. The same goes for the constant arguments between Turturro’s Billy Martin and Platt’s George Steinbrenner. Having heard so much through the years about their hot and cold relationship, it’s a real pleasure to watch these two great actors recreate the tension and fireworks that were such a staple of the New York culture back in the mid to late 70s. Their battles are rightfully the heart and soul of The Bronx Is Burning.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself though, since there are possibly two or three of you who don’t know the story behind the 1977 Yankees. My history lesson starts in 1973 when Steinbrenner bought the Yankees after a decade of the team being terrible. (Editor's Note: That decade was also one of incredible environmental health, since the atmosphere was not subjected to horrendous amounts of smug in the air.) In ’76 Steinbrenner hired one time Yankee Billy Martin to manage the team and they actually made it to the World Series, but were swept by the “Big Red Machine” (Cincinnati Reds). This brings us to the 1977 season and the focus of The Bronx Is Burning. Class dismissed.
The Bronx Is Burning is based on the book by Jonathan Mahler and focuses not only on the Yankees but also the “Son of Sam” murders that took place the same year. Having only seen two of the eight episodes so far, I can only say that the jury is out concerning this part of the story. We have seen so many films about the hunt for serial killers lately (Zodiac and Seven to name a few) along with Spike Lee’s underrated Summer of Sam, that the police procedural stuff seems a bit commonplace and is kind of a distraction from the main story: the Yankees and their quest for a world championship. (Editor's Note: The Author had originally capitalized "world championship" in the previous sentence. Coming on the heels of the statement that the Yankees' quest for same is a more important story than the spate of murders occurring in NYC at the same time, this just could not stand.) Despite my skepticism, I have to say that Michael Rispoli does a dead-on imitation of columnist Jimmy Breslin, and the New York character actors that play the detectives in charge of the investigation bring an authenticity that could make the storyline work in the end.
Getting back to Turturro and Platt, it’s obvious that they both did their research because their performances are utterly convincing in the way they embody Martin and Steinbrenner. Turturro not only looks like Martin, but he’s also brought his win-or-die intensity (Editor's Note: This joke is too easy, and so I will refrain) to the role, along with a certain insecurity that always seemed to lie beneath Martin’s confident public image. Platt is even more of a revelation as the bossy and unpredictable Steinbrenner, a guy who can go from overly optimistic to overly pessimistic at the drop of a hat (or the loss of a game) as was so often the case. (Editor's Note: Good thing Steinbrenner is no longer so manic-depressive, right?) Their scenes together are the stuff actors dreams are made of. This is partly because of chemistry, but the other part is the writing which sounds so specific to the characters and situation that we never doubt that any of it was actually said. Daniel Sunjata plays the great slugger Reggie Jackson, someone that Steinbrenner loved but everyone else did not, including Martin who didn’t care for Reggie’s ego. (Editor's note: I was an invited guest to Reggie Jackson's Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Suck it, Yankee fan!) Sunjata also is made to look eerily like Jackson, but he truly captures his verbal cadence and ability to tick people off just by opening his cocky mouth.
The Bronx Is Burning is only two episodes in as of this writing, but so far it has shown a keen eye for not only character detail but also for the details of the time and place that was New York City in 1977. It successfully blends together actual footage of events from that period with its recreation of those same events into a convincing portrait of a city and a team in transition from the bottom of the barrel to, as one famous song said, “The top of the heap.” (Editor's note: The "Heap" in this case refers to a heap of two-hundred million dollar bills, which is apparently enough to buy a .500 team in 2007.)
(Editor's Confession: Okay…maybe I'm a LITTLE bitter. And jealous.)