‘House of Steinbrenner’ Fails to Convey a Compelling Story“The House of Steinbrenner,” the Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple created an enormous storytelling challenge for herself: describe the generational shift in the Yankees family, from George to Hal Steinbrenner, and from the old Yankee Stadium to the new one.
But Kopple attempts too much in this Sept. 21 edition of ESPN’s “30 for 30” by following too many narrative strands (is it about the Steinbrenners, stadiums, fans, construction workers, fathers and sons, and Yankees employees?) and talking to too many people with predictable things to say.
There is little new here about the Steinbrenners — except for Hal’s love of flying, which prompts a single new revelation about his father’s behavior in a situation that he could not control.
But Kopple’s inescapable problem was the unavailability of the elder Steinbrenner through illness (his death in July concludes the film) and the publicly colorless personality of the younger one. “We knew George was taking a back seat,” Kopple said in a recent interview. “But something more beautiful happened: a film about fans and generations at the end of an era. It moved me.”
It could be suggested that a lot of people reside within the metaphorical house of Steinbrenner, and that the variety of those interviewed by Kopple were vital to give heft to the shift from old to new in the Yankees universe. But if the old Boss, the patriarch of the house of Steinbrenner, can be summoned only in video clips saying familiar things about his impatience to win, and the new Boss does not generate quotable bites for a future archive, the narrative heart is weakened.
Hal Steinbrenner’s interview with Kopple shows why he engages in so few of such sessions. He was friendly, even a little playful. But not much more open than he is in his news conferences.
“I like budgets,” he tells Kopple. And, “I do well with rules and with discipline.”
Also, he adds, “I was a mama’s boy.”
He cannot match his father’s rhetorical skills, showman’s instincts and willingness to be loathed. So he does not try. His older brother, the once-loquacious Hank, declined to speak to Kopple, despite her sending him some of her past documentaries, including “Wild Man Blues,” about Woody Allen on tour in Europe as a jazz musician. One of Hal and Hank’s sisters, Jenny, is seen in two cheerful if unilluminating stadium scenes, but she does not answer any questions.
“I would have liked more of Jenny,” Kopple said. “She’s so attractive and warm.”
A family in a public transition that cannot describe the impact of that change is, at best, a difficult subject for a documentary. So the film suffers for their introspection or lack of availability.
Kopple said in my interview with her that she did not want a film packed with wild stories of the Boss, like those in Bill Madden’s recent biography. “Everybody knows that stuff,” she said, although the book was a lively mix of old and new tales that would have translated well on screen. She added, “I wanted to go on a journey, like Eloise at the Plaza, into the bowels of Yankee Stadium.”
Documentaries soar when they reveal something new and send viewers on new paths. From the start of “One Night in Vegas,” the ESPN “30 for 30” film that had its premiere Tuesday night, you clearly see how deftly the director Reggie Rock Bythewood is using his hypercreative arsenal — graphic comics, hip-hop music and commentators as diverse as Maya Angelou and Mickey Rourke — to tell the story of the day in Las Vegas in 1996 when Mike Tyson beat Bruce Seldon and Tyson’s friend Tupac Shakur was fatally shot on the Las Vegas Strip after attending the bout.
That kind of verve is absent in “The House of Steinbrenner.”
Yet in the scenes when Kopple’s cameras follow the razing of the old stadium, the film comes to life. But there is not enough of it. Kopple said that she received access from the city to film the stadium’s destruction, which the rest of the news media had to observe from rooftops and the subway platform.
She shot the upper deck being torn down, the seats being removed and Derek Jeter’s locker being taken apart — and the emotion of longtime team employees like Debbie Nicolosi as a beloved stadium died to give life to one that cost more than a billion dollars to build.
Here was a vivid, colorful, noisy, political, financial, generational change, a blue-collar story that would have formed a sports connection to Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentaries about striking coal miners (“Harlan County U.S.A.”) and meat packers (“American Dream”). Here in the stadium saga was something potentially akin to Ken Burns’s “Brooklyn Bridge” and Gay Talese’s reporting about the builders of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Kopple spoke to some demolition workers but used their words sparingly to punctuate their Yankees devotion or hark back to their fathers.
Some Yankees fans will identify — and feel a sense of affirmation — from the words of their brethren in “The House of Steinbrenner,” regardless of how foreseeable their sentiments are.
But the story of the tear-down of the House That Ruth Built is the film that needs to be made.