Lots to Love (and Learn) in Yogi Berra’s Documentary ‘It Ain’t Over’

(3 stars)

As Sean Mullin’s admiring documentary “It Ain’t Over” makes clear, Yogi Berra wasn’t built as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The longtime New York Yankees catcher, who died in September 2015 at the age of 90, was 5ft 7in, never exactly sculpted his stocky physique and would have been the first to admit he didn’t. didn’t look like a magazine cover.

But Berra’s accomplishments belied his unassuming image: 10 World Series titles, three MVP awards and 18 All-Star selections during a playing career that spanned from 1946 to 1965. So it’s fitting that “Over”, at a compact 98 minutes, proves to be such a complete encapsulation of an American icon known more for its ubiquitous turns of phrase – “It’s not over until it’s over” leader among them – only for his exploits on the diamond.

Mullin’s documentary seeks above all to correct this perception. “[Mickey] Mantle was Elvis Pinstripe, and Yogi was Sancho Panza,” says Billy Crystal, Berra’s longtime friend and incisive source of on-screen insight. “I think it’s pretty obvious that his personality overshadowed his talent as a ball player.” Mullin comes out swinging at this distortion. As “It Ain’t Over” opens with a 2015 All-Star Game ceremony that recognized Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays as baseball’s four greatest living legends, the film cuts to the Berra’s incredulous granddaughter wondering why her grandfather was neglected.

The ensuing scroll through Berra’s life story effectively but lovingly hits his biographical beats. Wielding a wealth of vintage photographs and archival footage, “It Ain’t Over” paints a colorful portrait of a working-class player who is not lacking in wit, courage and self-mockery. Reflections on Berra’s humble upbringing, as a second-generation Italian immigrant from St. Louis, and his experience storming the beaches of Normandy quickly anchored the larger-than-life character. The gently sentimental account of how Berra wooed his wife, Carmen, further fleshes out an often flattened man in caricature, as do the reflections on their 65-year marriage.

But it’s the film’s take on Berra the Ball Player that justifies the whole enterprise. Crisp graphics convincingly show that Berra remains underappreciated. A collection of flattering talking heads — such as sportswriters Bob Costas and Claire Smith, retired stars Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher, and top managers Joe Torre and Joe Maddon — intricately deconstruct Berra’s talent to establish a contact at the plate and call an immaculate game behind. His role in capturing the only perfect game in World Series history, Don Larsen in 1956, deserves its due in piercing detail. And Berra’s insistence that he tag Jackie Robinson when the Brooklyn Dodgers star robbed the house in the 1955 World Series makes for a charming recurring gag.

“It Ain’t Over” doesn’t shy away from the less glamorous phases of Berra’s life either. His tumultuous coaching career takes as long as his decorated playing days. Berra’s son Dale bravely talks about his own cocaine addiction and the tough love his father gave him to help him get sober. For all the Berra family’s dismay at Yogi’s cartoonish public image, there’s still some fun to be had as his loved ones — and, in amusing archival interviews, Berra himself — struggle to decipher his Yogi-isms. (For the uninitiated, he also coined the phrases “It’s deja vu again,” “If you can’t imitate it, don’t copy it,” and “When you come to a fork, take- THE . “

A clever framing device places Berra’s words alongside comparable pearls of wisdom from William Shakespeare, Plato and Albert Einstein. Berra’s advice, of course, tends to be dizzyingly contradictory, but deceptively simple. The same could be said of “It Ain’t Over”, which walks through Berra’s life without ever feeling rushed. As for Mullin’s well-paced portrayal of a misunderstood legend, Berra’s words say it best: “You can observe a lot by watching.”

PG. In neighborhood theatres. Contains tobacco, drug references, coarse language and brief war images. 98 minutes.

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