March 3, 2024

Film Review: Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game

5 Stars
By Joseph Beyer | April 15, 2023

You may not know it, but we live in a mini pinball mecca here in northern Michigan, with a vibrant underground culture of players and pinheads, tournaments, and cool arcades showcasing the full range of classic to contemporary machines and “action.” So when Scott Pierson (owner and operator Traverse City’s The Coin Slot) slipped me a cryptic note with a link to Pinball: The Man Who Saved The Game, I gave it a spin and almost instantly became a big fan.

Released earlier this year in limited theatrical but now available at home anytime on VOD, the fast-paced and rewarding 90-minute experience is a Trojan Horse of the most creative and entertaining kind, as it arrives in a package presenting itself as a documentary but doesn’t reveal the ruse until you’re already hooked.

In reality, the fictional narrative set in 1970s New York City is presented by a cast of terrific actors and is fully grounded in the truthful story of pinball addict-turned-advocate Roger Sharpe, a struggling writer in the offices of early GQ magazine. Sharpe became the loudest pro-pinball voice in the city, fighting to overturn an antiquated ban on pinball machines by stodgy government officials who viewed the electronic gambling as a game of chance and banned the machines to XXX establishments.

But Sharpe proves that pinball is indisputably a game of skill. And so important is his contribution to modern pinball legitimacy that National Pinball Day is celebrated on August 1, Sharpe’s birthday, every year.

In this film version of true events, Sharpe’s awkward social nerdiness and real life drama are brought to life simultaneously by two fresh and unconventional performances: one by actor Mike Faist as a young Sharpe and the other by actor Dennis Boutsikaris as an elder Sharpe looking back at himself. If that’s not enough, the real Sharpe also makes a cameo and serves as one of the film’s executive producers.

If it sounds funky, a little confusing, or misguided—it’s not! In fact, the film is quite remarkable, and in pinball parlance, the wholly unique approach is the bonus-slash-jackpot of the movie itself.

Side-by-side with the Sharpes is actress Crystal Reed as Ellen, a young single mother who cautiously lets Sharpe into her life, drawn to his cause and contagious delight in the game. Their chemistry lights the story up like a bonus ball as he finds his way as the voice of modern pinball.

Brothers and screenwriters/directors Austin and Meredith Bragg are relative newcomers, but they show a keen control of actors (expertly cast by Lindsey Weissmueller), a wonderful knack for human touches, and an enthusiastic passion for the game itself, filmed and celebrated in vibrant and kinetic cinematography fitting of the backglass splash.

After the credits roll and you feel amped with that Lazarus-Ball feeling, I highly recommend taking that itch and scratching it in Traverse City at The Coin Slot, Right-Brain Brewery, or The Workshop (and shoot your lights out).

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