Like the best episodes of 30 For 30, the Barbara Kopple-directed “The House Of Steinbrenner” doesn’t stray too far from what the filmmaker does best. Kopple has shown a career-long fascination with the notion of legacy, and how families can be both united and divided by matters of politics, privilege, and tradition. Her “The House Of Steinbrenner” deals with the closing of the old Yankee Stadium and the opening of the new one, and it covers the passing of the torch from Yankee’s owner George Steinbrenner to his youngest son, Hal. It’s a leisurely film that doesn’t telegraph its intent, but uses anecdotes and a very deliberate structure to make subtle points about how hard it can be to live in a very long shadow.
As such, how you feel about “The House Of Steinbrenner” may be influenced by how you feel about the Yankees, and about Steinbrenner. Me, I’ve been a Yankee-hater pretty much all my life. The one time I faltered was in 1996, when my Braves clobbered the Yanks in the first two games of the World Series and I thought to myself that it would be good for baseball for the Yankees to win a couple and make it a competitive series. (I still blame myself for how that all turned out.) I also grew up in an era where George Steinbrenner was considered one of the sports world’s great villains. His attempts to micro-manage a game that doesn’t yield well to that kind of domination—a game where failure is inherent—was considered by many to be a case study in hubris, and the Yankees’ long stretch of failure after Steinbrenner’s ‘70s heyday was regarded as the sweetest kind of cosmic justice. Then 1996 happened, the Yankees became a dynasty again, and The Steinbrenner Story took on a more heroic cast.
That’s the angle Kopple takes too, primarily because she means to contrast the old and the new. Kopple isn’t unsympathetic to Hal Steinbrenner. Yes, she includes outtakes from their interviews in which Hal sounds defensive and uncomfortable, but that’s only to highlight how different the son is from his gregarious father. And yes, she dedicates a portion of the documentary to some of the problems with the new Yankee Stadium—like the atrocious sight-lines for fans in the outfield cheap seats—but that’s more to emphasize the overall problem of rich vs. poor in the game of baseball, not to embarrass the Steinbrenner family specifically. Still, I wish “The House Of Steinbrenner” didn’t gloss over how disliked The Boss and his Yankees were for so long. The topic isn’t ignored, by any means, but had the film been less sentimental about The Way Things Used To Be, I think it would’ve made the concerns about The Way Things Are Going all the more poignant.
That said, “The House Of Steinbrenner” is a very stirring piece of work, and I can only imagine that it’ll be an all-out weep-fest for longtime Yankees fans. Kopple spends almost the first fourth of the film interviewing patrons before the last game at Yankee stadium, listening to their heart-in-the-throat stories about going to games with their dads, and their favorite memories of the place and the team. She talks to a 93-year-old man who went to games in the park’s first season, and she follows along with Babe Ruth’s granddaughter as she visits Monument Park. She hears from Joba Chamberlain’s father, and gets Derek Jeter to talk about listening to Yankee games on the radio with his grandparents. Again and again, Kopple gets across the idea that this building and this team are something that binds generations.
And of course, since this is a film by a documentarian known for her films about labor strikes and the recreational pursuits of the wealthy, “The House Of Steinbrenner” takes a few detours to talk about money. The episode covers the Yankees’ locking up C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira for their first season in the new stadium—during which they’d win their first World Series since 2000—and it shows the team’s ownership group selling off pieces of the old stadium for exorbitant prices. Is this cycle of overcharging and overpaying simply a matter of giving the fans what they want—as the Steinbrenner family has always insisted—or is it something more pernicious?
Kopple doesn’t push that question too hard, though she does seem to enjoy how silly Hal Steinbrenner looks smashing a guitar at the opening of the new Yankee Stadium’s Hard Rock Café, and she does make time to show fans complaining about the high concession prices and the inappropriateness of the sushi bar at the new stadium. But she also plainly expects fans to get used to the new place and to make fresh memories there. One man she talks to gets wistful when he mentions how the new park will be “like my son’s Yankee Stadium.” Another, while working on the demolition of the old stadium, gets choked up when he thinks about his daughters going to games at the new stadium and looking across the street at the park that’s going to be where the old stadium stood. He hopes they’ll look at that park and think of their dad. “That’d be good,” he says.