The banishment of all-time hits leader Pete Rose from baseball and its Hall of Fame remains one of the sport’s most controversial and infamous episodes. ESPN slides headfirst into that controversy with Hustle, a fictional account that pulls few punches.
Based on the Dowd Report that led to Rose’s eventual lifetime expulsion, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) tells the tale through Paul Janzsen (Dash Mihok), one of several shady characters who hangs out with Rose at his Cincinnati gym, where bookmaking and the selling of steroids were common activities.
Janzsen watches the 1986 National League championship in the ballplayer’s home, but baseball’s not the only thing on TV: Rose (Tom Sizemore) is also keeping track of two college football games, and getting his own piece of the action.
Eventually, Janszen becomes Rose’s betting surrogate with Ron Delaplane (a menacing Alex Karsis), a New York-based bookie who makes it clear that Paul will pay for any bet Rose fails to meet. Mihok plays Janszen with just the right touch of naiveté and nervousness, aptly portraying how Rose piled on his “buddy” until he couldn’t take anymore.
Sizemore’s Rose takes some getting used to — the accent is oft more Brooklyn than Ohio, and attempts to mimic Rose’s body language make the Black Hawk Down star look like a hunchback.
Nonetheless, he shows how Rose manipulates Janszen, wife Carol (Melissa Di Marco) and others into sticking with him, even as he cheats on the latter and saddles the former with his gambling debts — before cutting Janszen loose after serving as a patsy for his infidelity.
Bogdanovich’s screenplay is strong on some details — the baseball and clubhouse scenes are so accurate, you can’t tell what was shot for the film from the archival footage. Unfortunately, that is also the film’s weak suit: it gets so caught up in the Janzsen particulars that other facets — how the gambling affected the Reds, and the Dowd investigation itself — are almost glossed over.
Aside from a few warnings from bench coach and right-hand man Tommy Helms (Geoffrey Bowes), the Reds are little more than a backdrop. And only the last 15 minutes or so deal with baseball’s investigation and what was a very public confrontation between Rose and then newly installed commissioner Bart Giamatti (George DiCenzo).
The end result: Hustle will entertain caper-flick fans, but might leave some baseball-history aficionados wanting more.
Hustle bows Saturday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m. on ESPN.