By Jake Rutkowski.
It’s hard to view the discourse around baseball’s most recent and protracted steroid use scandal as anything other than a proxy culture war, an outlet for the basest pearl-clutching and ideological chest-pounding. The pieces are all there: an institution steeped in perpetual nostalgia, aided by a media machine dedicated to upholding its pageantry at the risk of myopic idol worship; the sort of drug panic that drives all reactionary crackdowns; non-white targets of investigation in the highest profile cases bearing the brunt of the public’s impulse towards character assassination. Billy Corben (The U , Cocaine Cowboys ) is no stranger to America’s hegemonic tensions, especially as they play out in its love/hate relationship with sport, and even more particularly in the way they seem to hit a fever pitch in South Florida. Screwball, his latest, presents a sort of true crime documentary satire about the layers of illicit activity at play in cases of professional baseball players using performance-enhancing drugs, and in the MLB’s handling of such cases. Specifically, it digs into the muck of the doping revelations that stained the reputation of endlessly odd New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez and others, and finds a small-time crook story with implications that ripple out and force reflections on the very rectitude of the nation. Just not in the way that those leading the charge against steroids would have you think.
The film certainly does not give judgment over to the traditional arbiters of baseball morality, and early and often shows its hand in just how unseriously it is taking this often overserious subject. For one, it uses child actors in absurd makeup and costumes for reenactments, and interlays talking head audio over their pantomimes in a flourish reminiscent of Derek Waters’ Drunk History series. It’s a novel enough approach that speaks to the friction of feigned innocence and the terror of “corrupted youth” that hangs over the rhetoric surrounding the issue. More importantly, the film centers the narrative on and gives much of the storytelling over to “Doctor” Tony Bosch. Bosch distributed steroids at Biogenesis, the anti-ageing clinic at the center of the PED scandal that rocked the baseball world in 2013 and 2014 and impacted the playing careers of stars like Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, and who prior to that had supplied Manny Ramirez with the banned substances that lead to his suspension in 2009. He is a fascinating and game subject, a snake oil salesman who exudes confidence and seems to be equal parts con artist and true believer. At one point he expounds on the semantic difference between a “fake doctor” and an “unlicensed physician” in an impassioned attempt at qualifying his expertise. But he is no rube. He sees the hypocrisy inherent in the country’s psychic duel between opulent vanity and puritanical self-denialism, and he exploits it (a fact expressly summarized by the popular policemen’s special he offered at his clinic). And noting hypocrisy is the thrust of this film’s mission, which would be sort of a tired angle if not for the depths it sounds and the acutely cynical read that every interview subject has on their involvement in the story. Even Porter Fischer, the hapless Biogenesis customer turned con mark turned whistleblower, is able to see both the injustice and the overall uselessness in the way the MLB overstepped its boundaries and established its own private intelligence agency in its haphazard crackdown on doping.
Bosch and Fischer are just two of the endlessly entertaining players in this story. There’s a disgraced police officer-turned state health department inspector who speaks with a zealot’s intensity on the volume of fakes and crooks that come across his desk, and the mysteries that remain to be solved in the Biogenesis case. There’s the mobster tanning salon owners who coordinate a way to insert themselves in the investigation and make money off of Fischer’s endlessly trusting nature. The film’s promotional materials embrace explicit comparisons to the Coens and Elmore Leonard, and for good reason, but Soderbergh and Harmony Korine come to mind as well, should this story ever get the adaptation treatment. And where else but Florida? Not many other states, it turns out, as journalist Tim Elfrink (who Fischer turned to for the initial exposés that brought the scandal to light) notes that Governor Rick Scott was steadfast in his reticence to regulate the medical market in his state. Elfrink brings up a relevant bit of history to this point, explaining that Scott was chief executive of a company that had been charged with Medicare and Medicaid fraud under his leadership. There’s a particularly seedy convocation of swindlers, cops, and Republicans coming to a head here, and it really gives the story a sense of place. In short, don’t be surprised if you hear about Tony Bosch’s visit to Mar-a-Lago sometime soon.
Screwball is a study in narrative ownership and the shortcomings of moralistic rhetoric. It shows that, as is often the case in America, individual behaviors get demonized in the court of public opinion rather than root causes and those that leverage their power to maintain them. Of course, there are probably dangers to PED use that should not be ignored or undersold, especially that which is unregulated and driven by unnatural market performance pressure. And Bosch’s involvement in distribution to underage clients is especially disconcerting. So, if the film stumbles anywhere, it’s in the way that its breezy nature facilitates skipping over a bigger piece of the cultural context. That is, what drives these impulses towards “performance enhancement” in our hyper-competitive death cult of a nation in the first place? I find this particularly relevant in the scope of a sport that is barreling towards a labor crisis, with only faint glimmers of class-conscious solidarity among its workers and a Commissioner who has enabled the consolidation of ownership power throughout his tenure. To its credit, the film does get to a bit of “whose side are you on?” finger-pointing at that Commissioner, Rob Manfred. And ultimately it does a great service in stripping away the veneer that hides so many discretions in America and its pastime. Early in the film, we see a clip from the 2004 State of the Union Address, in which President George W. Bush speaks to the first wave of MLB steroid allegations for reasons that really only make sense when considering that Bush owned the Texas Rangers before entering politics. His concern was that steroid use sends the wrong message, “that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character.” The point of Screwball, in part, is to appreciate the dramatic irony in Bush applying these rigors to baseball and not his own presidency.
Jake Rutkowski holds an MA in English from Rutgers University in Camden, where he studied genre semantics and the African-American hero in Western films of the 1970s. He regularly covers film at Identity Theory and Cutting to Continuity and is a contributor to the forthcoming collection David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.