Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game Review
Roger Sharpe, the closest thing to a real life pinball wizard, is the titular subject of “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game,” a charming and entertaining new film about the overturn of the NYC ban on pinball in the 1970s.
Presented as a faux-documentary and scripted narrative hybrid, the movie opens with an aged Roger Sharpe, played by Dennis Boutsikaris, sitting down in front of the camera for an interview. He’s told by the documentarian, “tell us everything about the greatest shot you ever took.” Roger tells him some background is needed, and he takes us back to 1971 where we meet a young Roger Sharpe, played by Mike Faist (who might be recognized as Riff from Steven Spielberg’s 2021 film West Side Story).
It’s at this point that brothers Austin and Meredith Bragg, the directors and writers of the film, offer up some fresh cheekiness to subvert expectations. When the film flashes back to 1971 and John Lennon’s “Imagine” begins to play, there’s a record scratch, and the documentarian tells Roger the song is a little slow for what they’re going for and the rights to use it would be way too expensive. It cuts to a bar at the University of Wisconsin, where older Roger narrates and watches his younger self play pinball but has to stand on an apple box to match his younger counterpart’s height. It’s clear the Braggs want to have fun with their storytelling, and there are just enough of these hat-tip moments to keep them enjoyable versus overstaying their welcome.
The personal history older Roger covers pertains to his first divorce and subsequent move from Wisconsin to New York City, where he discovers pinball machines in an adult bookstore. He spends all of his spare time there, shown mostly playing Gottlieb’s Subway, and also lands a job as a writer at Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ) and begins to woo a woman named Ellen, played by Crystal Reed.
The end of the first act sees Roger witness his beloved adult bookstore pinball machines hauled out and destroyed. It’s then he learns that NYC has had an active pinball ban for over three decades. The rest of the film lays out exactly how this pinball enthusiast from the midwest with an insane mustache ends up saving the game, and the journey is a pure delight to watch.
With the faux documentary element, the Braggs are able to lay out an organic dose of pinball history. Older Roger discusses the earliest designs, and the scene in which we learn about the history of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s pinball ban is fascinating. For instance, the police used the legs of destroyed pinball machines to make billy clubs.
Many notable icons in pinball make appearances in the story, such as designer Sam Gensberg (founded Chicago Coin), Herb Jones from Bally, Alvin Gottlieb of Gottlieb, and Sam Stern and Harry Williams of Williams (before Sam’s son Gary started Stern Pinball).
Even two of Roger Sharpe's adult sons, Zach Sharpe and Josh Sharpe, grace the screen for brief seconds (though perhaps the casting for those roles leaves something to be desired).
In addition to the aforementioned Subway machine by Gottlieb, the other heavily featured machine is Gottlieb’s Cow Poke.
The Braggs nailed a fun, funny, and endearing tone. There’s a lightness established early on in both their writing and directing, but the captivating story they’ve crafted - and how they’re telling it - still makes an impact.
Performance wise, both Faist and Boutsikaris bring Roger to life with ease, portraying the pinball savior as a rather awkward, matter-of-fact guy, yet still with a tenderness to him. Faist, especially, seems to be having fun. There’s a believable cohesion in them playing the same character. Opposite Faist is Crystal Reed, who holds her own, and then some. Her charisma as his love interest and as a loving single mom makes it an easy romance to root for.
Technically speaking, the Braggs and cinematographer Jon Keng create a nostalgic-looking ‘70s, complemented by the production design by David Allen Butler bringing arcades, bars, and GQ headquarters come to life, and also by Annie Simon’s retro costume design. Editor Michelle Botticelli has some great pinball sequences that bring the game to life. And a special shout out to the hair and makeup heads for Roger's unforgettable stache.
At the heart of the movie is a wholesome story about family and a reflection on the risks and shots we take to move our lives ahead, which thematically isn’t far off from playing pinball. Early on Roger asks someone regarding how to play, “what do I aim for?” “Whatever you want.” If that ain’t the truth.
Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is available now to rent or buy on Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. And, hey, it’s a tight 94 minutes! More movies should take note.
Editors nitpick: Would Roger Sharpe really put drinks on the glass of a pinball machine?? We certainty hope not.
Cast of Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game
- Mike Faist: Roger (young)
- Crystal Reed (Ellen)
- Dennis Boutsikaris: Roger (old)
- Christopher Convery: Seth
- Connor Ratliff: Jimmy
- Mike Doyle: Jack Haber
- Bryan Batt: Harry Coulianos
Where to Watch Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game
- Available now to rent or buy on Vudu, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and iTunes