Nolan Ryan in Facing Nolan (Photo: Utopia & XYZ Films)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Bradley Jackson
STARS Nolan Ryan, Ruth Ryan

I’m always wary whenever a nonfiction biopic is produced by the subject in question, as more controversial or unsavory details are often minimized or outright ignored. As Exhibit A, check out the various Mike Tyson projects overseen by none other than Mike Tyson (including Champs, reviewed here).

With Facing Nolan, a documentary about baseball legend Nolan Ryan, the suspicion is amplified, as not only does Nolan serve as an executive producer but so do his sons Reid and Reese. In this case, though, any worries prove to be much ado about nothing. While the movie makes a half-hearted attempt to paint an overall picture of the life of Ryan, it’s clear that director Bradley Jackson never had any intention of presenting a warts-and-all portrait — instead, the film remains dedicated to Ryan’s achievements as a pitcher, with a look at love of family to fill in the margins.

There’s been ample chatter of late about how Tom Brady is the NFL G.O.A.T., i.e. Greatest of All Time (a designation I’m not sure is entirely warranted, but I digress), but on the MLB side of things, there are doubtless those who would enter Nolan Ryan into the conversation. Ryan holds a whopping 51 MLB records, and while some would not be coveted by anyone (most career walks, most stolen bases allowed), the vast majority are reflective of his astonishing career: most strikeouts, most no-hitters, longest career, and many, many more. He’s even tied for the record of having played during the most presidential administrations (seven, from LBJ to Clinton).

Nolan Ryan (Photo: MLB)

Facing Nolan covers the star’s 27 years on the diamond, playing for the New York Mets, the California Angels, the Houston Astros, and the Texas Rangers. As expected, there are plenty of talking heads to offer context and anecdotes, most of them fellow players. Also among the interviewees is former U.S. President George W. Bush, who’s not only a family friend but also was one of the owners of the Rangers during Ryan’s tenure with that team. Personally speaking, I was most startled seeing among the interviewees Joe Posnanski, my former friend and colleague on the UNC-Charlotte student newspaper The 49er Times and now an Emmy Award-winning sports reporter-columnist and a bestselling author.

The baseball players interviewed are a personable lot, and many amusing stories are shared. One of the most famous involves the 1973 game in which a sizzling Ryan (then playing for the Angels) was striking out Detroit Tigers left and right and setting yet another record, this one for most strikeouts in a single game (17). With only one more out needed for the Angels to end and win the game, Tiger player Norm Cash sauntered to the plate carrying not a bat but a leg he had broken off a piece of clubhouse furniture — when ordered to grab a bat instead, he snorted, “Why? I won’t hit [the ball] anyway!”

Adding a more personal touch to the film, Jackson stays away from anything controversial (such as the Ryan family’s recent backing of certain grotesque and fascistic politicians) and chooses to focus on Ryan’s one true love, the other half of a relationship that began as a high school romance, turned into marriage in 1967, and continues to go strong to this day. As everyone notes, Ruth is not only a formidable partner for Nolan but is also more competitive, which is amusing in light of his chosen profession.

The movie spends a good deal of time focusing on the family, which allows for some touching moments as well as some humorous tidbits. In addition to serving as spokesman in a number of TV commercials for various products (including Advil), Ryan appeared on a couple of 1975 episodes of the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. As a family member notes, it’s a good thing Nolan Ryan decided to become an athlete rather than an actor.

(Facing Nolan will debut in late May, with screening schedule TBA.)

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