The internment of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II is not one of the prouder moments in the history of the United States. Writer/director Desmond Nakano was able to get a film made that a took a different look at this part of U.S. history, framing it around the subject of baseball as it was played in an internment camp in Utah in “American Pastime” (now available on DVD). The film succeeds to a certain extent, although a few clichés toward the end may make you realize that just about any film about baseball that comes out of Hollywood has an ending that may make a real baseball fan say, “That would never happen.”
“American Pastime” is basically the story of two families: the Nomura family of East Los Angeles, which is uprooted by the Federal Government and sent to the Topaz internment camp in Utah, and the Burrell family, headed by a former minor-leaguer catcher who now serves in the Army as a camp guard.
The patriarch of the Nomura family, Kaz, (Masatoshi Nakamura), is a former amateur baseball star who tries his best to organize the internees into a baseball league. He has two sons, one of them Lyle (Aaron Yoo) who had a college scholarship to play baseball before the war, and in his bitterness over losing that scholarship, he abandons baseball and turns to other hobbies like drinking and gambling and playing jazz.
Of course in the course of playing jazz, he meets the camp’s music teacher, Katie Burrell (Sarah Drew), who is the daughter of Billy Burrell (Gary Cole), who doesn’t like the Japanese-Americans and is bitter that he didn’t make it to the big leagues, a feeling that intensifies and that his son died in combat with the Navy.
As you would expect, Katie and Lyle fall in love. Neither set of parents approve of the relationship. Racists in the town, personified by town barber Ed Tully (Jon Gries), beat up Lyle and hurt his arm. Ed and Billy play on the town’s minor league team.
Eventually, Lyle’s arm heals and he reconciles with his father and the internees get to play a game against the town team for the film’s climax. Unfortunately, the film bogs down a bit here, as the game just doesn’t have a lot of drama in it.
The best part of the game action is the one device that Hollywood uses for baseball, which is the completely unrealistic “play-by-play guy on the PA system.” The announcer for “American Pastime” is none other than John Kruk. Kruk was not afraid to come across as a bit of a racist jerk. It’s probably not hard to figure out how Kruk mispronounces the name “Takeshita.” (Hint: move the letter “a”).
In the end, the film wraps up in a way that evoked the climactic scene of “A League of Their Own,” another film about wartime baseball, albeit with a lot less politics in it and much more comedy.
The best part of the film may be a brief sequence in the middle of the film, which shows clips of home movies taken by internees. They are shown playing baseball against the desolate backdrop of the Utah desert, trying to somehow find some sanity and normalcy in a situation that they likely never dreamed they would find themselves in while living in the United States.
"American Pastime" does cover a worthy subject and it avoids being preachy, even though the topic of Japanese internment could easily be covered that way. Overall, it's a story about families more than a story about baseball or politics.
The DVD has a brief extra on the making of the film and a copy of the theatrical trailer. The film runs 105 minutes.