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Pinball as Metaphor for Life

The Bragg Brothers' film takes a shot at love and liberty.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
March 23, 2023; ported here on May 31, 2024

"Life is defined by risk: those you take and those you don't. The ball is gonna drain no matter what, so find what you want and take a shot."—Roger Sharpe

How did a scheme for a libertarian movie about pinball turn into a poignant and delightful film about fighting for what you love and whom you love? Meet Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game.

The answer has to do with the provocative story of Roger Sharpe's efforts to repeal New York's pinball ban; Sharpe's passion for his career, his loved ones, and his hobby; the pitch-perfect script by Austin and Meredith Bragg that is equally humorous and heartfelt; and the magical performances by Mike Faist as Roger, Crystal Reed as Sharpe's girlfriend Ellen, and the rest of the cast.

Mild spoilers to follow.

Among the descriptors that most easily come to mind for our era, earnest is not among them. Yet this film is earnest. When Roger plays pinball to mentally regroup, when Ellen tells Roger upfront that she's interested in a long-term relationship involving marriage and more children, when "serious writer" Roger takes a job at a fashion magazine, when a pinball manufacturer's face lights up when describing his improvements to the game, these moments are treated respectfully, not with the cynicism we might expect elsewhere. The central theme of the film is that people's values matter.

It would have been easy for the writers to tack on a love interest just to fill out what is basically a movie about politics. But the Braggs are good writers, so that is not what they do. Instead, the writers show how Roger interweaves his values. In wooing Ellen, Roger straightforwardly confesses his love of the "unsophisticated" and "childish" game of pinball. The game also becomes an important way for Roger to connect with Ellen's son. Roger pours his soul into a picture book about pinball, a project for which Ellen provides crucial support. And a key moment in Roger's romantic life relates directly to the lessons that Roger learns from pinball. Beautiful, beautiful writing.

Something that works great for the film is getting seasoned actor Dennis Boutsikaris to play an older version of Sharpe. The setup is that the movie is told through the older Sharpe's eyes as interpreted by filmmakers eager to "spruce up" the story for dramatic effect. So the older Sharpe has to occasionally set the record straight. This layered time sequencing allows the directors (the Braggs brothers, again) to briefly give some of the political background of the city laws (not just in New York!) banning pinball, as sort of a mini-documentary. Boutsikaris is amazing. He strikes just the right tone (as Sharpe) in being intrigued by the filmmakers (who are audible off screen) yet skeptical of their intentions. I don't know what Sharpe thinks, but having one's story presented by the double-whammy of Faist and Boutsikaris strikes me as pretty dang cool.

The film is now playing in select theaters, and it is available for rent or purchase through Amazon. I am very glad that I purchased it, as I already want to watch it again, and I'm sure it will be a perennial favorite.

Here is the trailer.

And here is a short interview of the Braggs brothers by Reason (for which the Braggs work).

Pinball in Colorado

I had no idea that pinball was making a comeback until my brother dragged me into a pinball arcade in Fort Collins. I checked around on the map and there's an arcade near my house as well, along with several others in the area. I have to say that I suck at pinball, but I have a newfound appreciation for the game.

It turns out the best pinball player in the world is a 19-year-old from Longmont, Escher Lefkoff. See CPR's report. Lefkoff echoes Sharpe: "We are all going to die. That is just a fact of life. So it really depends on what you do with the ball—with your opportunities."

Some years ago the Denver Post interviewed Kevin Carroll, who helped to revive pinball in Colorado. NPR also interviewed Carroll (in 2012), who said:

I'm a player first, businessman second. We're mainly about the pinball, not about how much can we make. . . . Pinball isn't really about just arcade gaming. It's a sensory experience. All your senses are involved. And it's a very subculture of people that enjoy playing it.

I checked in with Carroll's Lyons Classic Pinball Arcade and Store. According to the web site, Kevin and his wife Carole (yes, Carole Carroll!) still run the joint.

March 24 update: The web site it out of date. The Carrolls sent me the following note:

We sold Lyons Classic Pinball in 2020 amid COVID. The business is under new ownership and is still open—celebrating it's 20th year this month! We haven't yet seen the film but definitely plan to.

An arcade in Louisville also got some media attention; it's still open too!

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