Review by Sean Boelman
Between Tetris and Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game, the time is nigh for unorthodox biopics about people who played a pivotal role in the preservation of amusements. Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is the smaller-scale of the two films, but still offers plenty of enjoyable fun and is buoyed by a strong lead performance.
The movie tells the story of a writer who makes it his personal quest to reverse the ban on pinball in New York City. There are a lot of different ways they could have taken this — counterculture comedy or courtroom thriller — but the filmmakers instead opt to make it an uplifting family drama, and it’s pretty enjoyable.
The film incorporates some elements of metafiction through talking head interviews, narration, and self-insertion from the subject. It’s very reminiscent of the style of the movie American Animals, which was quite underrated. However, whereas that film used its metaness to comment on the gray ethicality of the situation, this movie uses it more as a gimmick.
The protagonist is certainly a likable hero, but what we get here is a story that feels relatively trite. The Braggs fail to convince us of the significance of “saving” pinball. There is a lot of discussion about why it’s ridiculous that pinball was ever banned in the first place, but regardless of the agreeability of this argument, the film doesn't make a great argument as to why pinball deserves to stick around.
Indeed, it never feels as if there are legitimate stakes to this story. What would have happened if our hero had failed? He would have gone on with the rest of his life, playing pinball with his unlikely family on the machine he owns. Although the story is interesting, very little is done to make it feel important.
Viewers might recognize lead actor Mike Faist as the breakout actor who played Riff in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. He’s pretty fantastic in the role, capturing the personality of the real-life subject perfectly — and it’s easy to see this resemblance given that it is often juxtaposed against interviews with the real-life person.
In terms of production value, the movie’s lower budget compared to many biopics set in this period is evident, but it manages to have a decent amount of energy nevertheless. What this film was missing to take it to the next level is a killer soundtrack, but of course, music licensing is one of the most expensive things for a filmmaker.
Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is a fun little movie, but it is pulled down by its feeling of inconsequentiality. Still, Mike Faist’s performance is endlessly enjoyable, making this a worthwhile and breezy watch.
Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is now available on VOD.