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Dan Webster reviews "Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game"


You’d think the rise of videogames would have made the existence of pinball machines irrelevant. Even in the early ’70s, most barflies I knew would rather have used their coins to play Pong than pinball.

Like many fads, though, pinball appears to be making a comeback. The machines—those four-legged modules of flashing lights, silver balls and the tantalizing habit of tilting—first gained popularity in the 1930s, lost their allure when digital games first appeared, but then in the last decades have again attracted fans. They’ve even spawned tournaments, which—according to the International Flipper Pinball Association—have grown five-fold in recent years. In 2022 alone, some 23,000 people took part in official competitions.

It might be a stretch to claim this, but save for a guy named Roger Sharpe, pinball might have gone the way of Chatty Cathy dolls and lawn darts. That, at least, is the argument put forth in the based-on-real-events film Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game.

Written and directed by the Bragg brothers, Austin and Meredith, the film stars Mike Faist, who you might recall played Riff in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. Faist’s Sharpe is a wannabe writer who emerged from college in Wisconsin, got married, then divorced, fired from his job, and ends up looking both for work and some notion of himself, in New York City.

Sharpe ends up snaring a writer’s position at Gentleman’s Quarterly, a magazine then struggling both to find subscribers and an actual theme (now known as GQ, it exists today as an arbiter of men’s lifestyle and fashion). And while looking for stories, Sharpe recalls how in college he buoyed his spirits by playing pinball. And he did so often enough to get pretty good at it.

Strangely enough, this recollection comes to him as, walking along a Manhattan street, he hears those familiar pinball chimes. And they’re coming from an adult bookstore. Not that he’s remotely interested in what the store has to offer behind its curtained doorway. No, Sharpe has found his raison d’être right there in the store lobby.

At this point you might think that Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game would continue on as a typical film, with a storyline that features Sharpe writing an article that develops into a book, his developing a relationship with a woman, Ellen (played by Crystal Reed), and, eventually, his being called upon to support a group intent on changing a long-held New York law that deems pinball machines illegal in public places.

And, yes, it’s true that New York had outlawed pinball (as did a number of other cities, accusing the machines of making gambling attractive to children). And, too, the plot elements I just outlined indeed are in the film. It’s just that they aren’t played out in a typical, straightforward manner.

The Bragg brothers reveal Sharpe’s story with a clever eye to us, the audience. At an early point, an older version of Sharpe (played by Dennis Boutsikaris) interrupts a scene, accusing the directors (who remain off-screen) of overdramatizing the ways things really unfolded. It’s the elder Sharpe, then, who literally becomes the film’s narrator, chastising the directors for taking liberties with the truth, and being chastised by them in turn for straying story-wise from anything other than pinball.

That struggle is what makes Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game more than just a simple story of a guy on a mission to save an arcade game. Because as much as the off-screen directors want to get to the scene where Sharpe is called to bear witness before a New York City council, the narrator Sharpe is intent on revealing how his relationship with Ellen—a few years older and the divorced mother of an 11-year-old boy—came about, and endured.

The result is a clever, lighthearted movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and which, at 95 minutes, is timed out perfectly. If I have one complaint, it’s the silly mustache that Faist wears. Lots of men had bad facial hair in the ’70s, but not many could rival the mustache of former Today co-host Gene Shalit.

Then I saw a photo of the real Roger Sharpe, and the real mustache. And my mind went… well, tilt.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for