Who would even take an hour and a half out of their busy day to watch a movie about the legal battle that saved Pinball back in 1976? Clairvoyance or self-awareness, the Braggs brothers knew just how far the horse they’d gambled on would go on the racetrack. But we can’t have an unfinished race now, can we? So, fusing the acknowledgement of the subject matter’s limitations with an endearingly meta “distraction” in the form of a grounded and adorable love story, Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game crosses the finish line and does a remarkable job at that. Let’s see how the film plays out and if there’s a thing or two to learn from the story of Roger Sharpe.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game’?
However difficult it may be for us to digest right now, the game of Pinball was, in fact, banned in NYC, along with other major cities in America, for over three decades. In an odd attempt to curb the growing gambling problem in the country, Mayor Fiorello Laguardia attacked the mostly harmless Pinball machines like it was personal. And the man taking Laguardia’s ban on his beloved Pinball personally was a scrawny 25-year-old Roger Sharpe, with a mustache so big it was the most noticeable banner of his manhood, other than his phobia of commitment, of course. Even as an old Sharpe somewhat reluctantly sits down with the faux-director of the faux-documentary about the man who played the most significant role in terminating the ban on Pinball machines, we’re made privy to the fact that Sharpe isn’t unaware of his inconsequentiality in the grand scheme of things. It’s this amusing air of self-awareness that permeates the narrative of the film and is recurrently whipped out as a comical plot device that keeps ‘Pinball’ from crumbling under the weight it was smart enough not to take on.
How Did Sharpe Fall In Love With Pinball?
You would think that a man who loves the game of Pinball enough to write a whole book about it would be born a Pinball wizard. But that was hardly the case with Roger. In fact, and by his own admission, it wasn’t until he met an enigmatic stranger owning the game of the moody metal ball that Roger even fathomed just how much joy Pinball can bring to a person. But that was his class of ’71, the University of Wisconsin days. Since then, he’s tried his hand at marriage and failed so miserably that he now lives in a coop with only a mattress to call his own. Add to that his crestfallen career as an advertisement writer, and you’ve got a man who’s just as hopeless as the innocent pinball machines thrashed on the side of the road by the baton-wielding cops. What’s a lonely oddball with no foreseeable prospect of happiness to do when he comes across an adult video store with an illegal pinball machine? He plays. He gives “the game of skills” his all, and every time the ball hits the goal, his sullen sense of purpose is rejuvenated. If there’s something he’s fantastic at, it’s Pinball. And a jobless, loveless man in New York City is not exactly in a position to turn his back on something that genuinely nurtures his sense of accomplishment.
How Did Sharpe’s Career Coincide With His Brush With Love?
It really doesn’t get any better for a man with a very apparent lack of confidence than to not just meet a pretty woman in the elevator but practically get asked out. Life doesn’t seem too grim when the people at Gentlemen’s Quarterly decide to take a chance on someone safe, and who’s safer than Roger? Quickly winning over Ellen, the 32-year-old woman who knows exactly what she’s looking for and doesn’t shy away from unambiguous communication, happens almost simultaneously with Roger earning the trust of his superiors at GQ. The barely-masked jabs of the director as old Roger keeps getting lost in the echoes of a once-in-a-lifetime love only add more charm to the real journey we’ve sneakily been led to witness.
In Roger’s defense, he did start off by clarifying that he’d be recounting the real history behind what led to the life-changing shot he took in 1976. If he can bypass the sleazy director’s creepy alterations to tell us the real story of how he wooed Ellen and her 11-year-old son Seth, who are we to complain? For a man who’s not quite fluent in adulting, Seth does come through whenever he needs to for his girlfriend and her son, who’s often had his heart shattered by his birth father. His fear of commitment is hardly a match for the brave woman who’s too scared to show the world her art but has enough faith in Roger to risk letting him get close to the one thing that matters to her more than anything in the world. It might not have been love at first sight, but watching his words turn up on the paper with the rhythmic clickety clacks of Ellen’s finger on the typewriter does make him see just how well their individual gifts and quirks come together to form the most beautiful picture he’s ever seen.
How Did Sharpe Get Involved With MAA?
Now here’s the thing: Sharpe isn’t exactly the sharpest or even the most creative mind working on GQ advertisements. So when the time comes for him to contribute his own creative ideas for the next issue of the magazine, you bet he taps into the one thing he knows best. And when his research for an article about Pinball lands him in the office of the MAA (Music and Amusement Association) and he first gets a whiff of just how deep the fight against the unreasonable ban runs, all his immediate action consists of is buying a machine for his home. It’s when Seth pinpoints Chicago as the origin of Pinball’s history that something clicks in the Chicago man, who’s a long way from home. And why should Roger not go the endearingly neurotic distance and write a book about Pinball?
With James, the freelance photographer currently working for GQ, by his side, Roger runs eyes-closed head-first into the maze that is the origin of Pinball. Managing to convince the Pinball OGs to sit down for interviews means Roger hasn’t wasted the advance he’s acquired from the publisher. But more importantly, this is the beginning of Roger recognizing Pinball as something bigger than a game that he plays when he needs to feel that he has control over the passage of his life. But, at the same time, he’s increasingly reluctant to even entertain the hapless Danny, who’s been after him to get him to side with the MAA when the case goes to court.
How Does ‘Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game’ End?
Instead of going by the usual tropes of relying heavily on the game’s blanket influence on people and cultures, ‘Pinball’ opts to let a more personal story take charge. By the time you’re carried to the end of the narrative, you know what you’ve been watching is more a story of Roger Sharpe’s self-discovery than anything else. Roger has made a lot of mistakes in life. Mistakes that left him with no money in the bank and no one to turn to when life seemed to pass him by. He’s never been one to make friends or get close to people, and he’s been shown to keep his distance unless he absolutely needs to socialize with someone.
For a man like that to jump right into a relationship with Ellen and embrace Seth as though he was ready to assume the role of a father, it must’ve been one hell of a ride. Yet, even while playing the part of a family man and deriving genuine happiness from it, something in Roger remained unchanged. At this point, every time he is evidently dodging the prospect of the three of them becoming a family, it has more to do with his severe lack of self-worth than his wish to steer clear of labels and responsibilities. He sees Ellen and Seth as two people who’ve had a hard enough time making do with the bare minimum and deserve the world. He’s just not sure if he will be able to rise up and become the man who can give them the life that they deserve.
It doesn’t help that after all this toiling, the excruciating back and forths, and exhausting the advance he’d gotten for his book, he’s left with no money to fly to California when Pinball pioneer Harry Williams himself invites him over. But yet again, it’s the unwavering support from Ellen that truly makes him believe that his dream deserves more faith than he’s ready to invest in it. We may never know how he actually managed to get the money for his last-minute trip to California to meet the man who was crazy enough to go medieval when he wanted to stop people from cheating in Pinball. Despite the more convincing turn of events showing a morose Roger selling his beloved machine for the money, we know that the real Roger could never bring himself to sell the first Pinball machine he’d bought. But ‘Pinball’ is more often than not about the moral of the story than the little trivialities. Roger is a wide-eyed child soaking in the magic of creation from the creator who turned a board of pins and a ball into something that had a life of its own. But the subtle changes in Roger’s perspective of life and his priorities surely had a lot to do with Harry lovingly calling his wife to join him for the interview.
Seeing the bigger picture has never come easy for Roger. For someone whose range of vision didn’t extend beyond what served his own whims, it was only normal that Roger had no interest in standing in front of Chairman Warner and making his case in favor of legalizing Pinball. But as the older Roger has been trying to establish from the beginning with his fourth-wall-breaking intrusions into his own past, Pinball’s fate lay in the hands of everything else that was going on in young Roger’s life. For starters, his book was ravaged by the publisher, who was steady in her resolve to trust her experience over his passion for Pinball’s history. What she essentially wanted was a book of pictures taken by James. And for a first-time writer who no one knew of, Roger didn’t exactly have a lot of say in the matter. His alarming tendency to be completely selfish played a significant part in his staunch decision to pull the book. Granted, the book was something he paid for with blood and sweat, but it was also a joint effort with Ellen, who took hours out of her busy days to sit in the bathroom for lack of a better space and do the entirety of the typing.
In his tremendous rage against losing his autonomy over his own creation, Roger lost sight of everything that stood before him. Here was a woman ready to take a chance on a man who couldn’t even promise her commitment, let alone a life of comfort. And it really was a low blow on Roger’s part to attack her fear of letting the world appreciate her art when he was hardly in a position to criticize someone doing her best to keep herself and her son out of welfare. Whether he was ready to admit it initially or not, when Roger did change his mind about not being the mouthpiece for Pinball and MAA, Ellen’s influence on him was undeniable. Both Ellen and his brush with the minds that made Pinball the magical game he could seek solace in helped Roger see that the people of NYC shouldn’t have to drive to New Jersey for a game. So he donned his bulky suit on his frail frame and stood against the unjust accusations against a harmless game. He wasn’t standing in front of a row of people ready to rip him apart so he could prove how Pinball was much less harmful than the other atrocities the city allowed. He was there for a demonstration of a game that, to him, represented all the shots life had to offer.
The string of choices that got him there loomed heavy on his conscience even as he was getting ready to show the grouchy Chairman what he was made of. For someone speaking in favor of choices and how important it is to take a risk once in a while, Roger himself was hiding his fear of vulnerability behind his defensive facade. At that point, nothing was more important to him than taking the one gamble that could make or break his life—calling Ellen and making amends. And when that was done and dusted, no amount of frowns, discouraging groans, or even being made to play the game on a type of machine that he hadn’t practiced on could stand in the way of him taking the shot and emerging victorious. But this isn’t the story of a hero who crushed a Grinch of a villain. ‘Pinball’, like Roger himself, sees the best in people. And it even goes as far as to appreciate the shift in the Chairman, who evidently was only against the game because he had never seen someone play it with a purpose before.
In a way, Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game‘s ending doubles down on the metaphor that Roger has cryptically been speaking of throughout the film. To him, Pinball was life itself. Every turn, every goal, and every swing of the ball stood for each of the choices he’d been making ever since he’d fallen hopelessly in love with a game. Who knows if he could have managed to make the deciding shot that changed the Chairman’s mind and legalized Pinball had he not run out of City Hall to make sure he didn’t let go of Ellen? It was a day of choices. One choice was that Pinball machines would be reinstalled throughout NYC. And another granted Roger the kind of happiness he was too nervous to even dream of. Sure, Roger’s life since the win at City Hall has been stuffed with fantastic accomplishments. He finished and published his book, designed games of his own, and even worked as a consultant for the game that changed his life. But his most consequential and happiest achievement has been to overcome his fears and limitations and build a life with Ellen, without whom none of this would’ve meant anything.