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“Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game”

Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game has a coolly confident yet tenderly fragile tone and a built-in, self-critical humor. It daringly reconstructs the recognizable past on a manifestly low budget. It has precisely calibrated and gleeful performances and a strong and wild yet fine-grained story, one that pulls the movie ahead vigorously but with winking digressions. In short, “Pinball,” written and directed by the Bragg brothers, Austin and Meredith, is the latest entry in the rare and precious genre of the pisser: a movie whose very existence is amazing because it dramatizes small-scale real-life events that have a vastly outsized historical power.

Pinball (which arrives in theatres and on a variety of streaming services Friday) tells the true (or nearly true) story of an actual pinball fanatic named Roger Sharpe and his effort to play the game in his adoptive home in New York City in the mid-nineteen-seventies. When he discovered the astonishing fact that pinball was illegal in the city, Sharpe found a few ways to play it nonetheless. (Pinball was banned in 1942, ostensibly as a game of chance that initiates children into gambling.) He then played the central role in an effort to legalize it, which actually happened in 1976. (Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” includes a subplot involving the lifting of a similar ban in Los Angeles, in the same era.) The Braggs dramatize Sharpe’s pinball life, starting with his early days as a pinball wizard, as a student at the University of Wisconsin in 1971. The character—call him Roger—is played by Mike Faist, in his first-released film since his breakout role in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” and the new film gives him the time, the space, and the pace to deliver a far subtler and richer performance.

Roger goes to New York to become a writer, tries his hand at novels, takes a job in advertising, yearns to write for a living, and, at twenty-five, gets hired at GQ (then still widely called Gentlemen’s Quarterly) as a life-style journalist. In his spare time, he longs to play pinball but finds no tables anywhere—except illicit ones in a storefront porn shop, which he therefore begins to frequent solely to play pinball. Inspired to write a piece about the game, Roger takes his passion a step further and sells a proposal for a coffee-table book about pinball. In the course of interviewing a colorful array of pinball-machine manufacturers and designers (for the most part, crusty older men who’d been burned by unwanted publicity from crusading politicians), Roger crosses the line from reporting to advocacy and delivers a presentation of pinball, at a New York City Council hearing, in order to prove that it’s a game of skill, not of chance.

The Bragg brothers take the premise and story of “Pinball” seriously, conveying a manifest, palpable fascination with the specifics, the twists and turns, the main conflicts and peculiar digressions, the details and byways of the tale—and a sincere curiosity about and affection for the idiosyncratic personalities of the characters it brings together, starting with Roger Sharpe himself. (He’s also an executive producer of the film.)The filmmakers like Roger so much that they film two of him—both the dramatic one in his twenties, played by Faist, and the elder one, who is interviewed on camera and whose narration explicates and punctuates the movie throughout. Yet this real-life elder Roger is, in fact, a fictionalized character—the credits call him Mr. Sharpe—played by Dennis Boutsikaris. As the movie unfolds, the Braggs question him about the story’s digressions from the realm of pinball, and Mr. Sharpe, in turn, interrupts the movie to call out the Braggs’ distortions of his actual experiences. Mr. Sharpe also turns up onscreen throughout the action, alongside the younger Roger, observing and wryly commenting on his younger self (to whom he remains invisible).

Pinball is a journalistic movie and a metajournalistic one. Roger’s reporting provides the film with its factual backbone. (There’s also a visual element to that reporting, by way of the great photographer James Hamilton—played by Toby Regbo—with whom Roger collaborates.) Mr. Sharpe tells the story of the younger Roger’s investigations and conjures his interview subjects and the various people he encountered in his explorations, in his writing of an article on pinball and then in his expansion of it into a book, with a fervent energy that the Braggs replicate in their vivid portrayal of them. The film revels in the ins and outs of journalism, the struggle to persuade guarded people to grant interviews; the opening of doors from one subject to another; the pleated connection of individual observations, in which the reporter begins to see the overarching story emerge; the ways that the book business transforms an author’s passions and fascinations into a smoothed-out product; and, ultimately, how the journalist makes the story land with tangible civic impact.

The Braggs pull off the vertiginous intricacy of this narrative with playful cheer and breezy charm, which is carried along by the performances, and also by the heartiness of the story itself. “Pinball” is a feast of voices, which the Braggs treat quasi-musically, both in tone (they love the characters’ various accents and inflections) and in the lyrically composed dialogue, which has an ear for shapely phrasing and recurring words, phrases, and ideas. The overlap and intertwining of drama and interview, action and commentary, is thoroughly contrapuntal, rivalling the boldness and the cleverness of Alain Resnais’s high-level narrative gamesmanship.

“Pinball” is also a warmhearted love story. It features one of the sweetest of meet-cutes in recent movies: a moment in an office-building elevator, in which Roger encounters Ellen Steinberg (Crystal Reed), a secretary. In a single long take of their cool verbal jousting, the Braggs convincingly film the miracle of love at first sight. If pinball playing and reporting provide the movie with its social framework, this relationship provides its emotional one. Ellen is thirty-two, divorced (as is Roger), and the mother of the eleven-year-old Seth (Christopher Convery). Roger forms a warm bond with Seth, who suffers from his father’s waywardness, but Roger, once burned in marriage, is hesitant about taking the plunge again. The Braggs bring the couple together with an old-school Hollywood (call it Hawksian) brusqueness, filled with elbows-out candor and wit; for instance, the couple express their love without ever using the word, and a handful of key words and phrases provide the reference points for their jibing, radiant tenderness. The movie sketches the interconnections and conflicts of the couple’s personal life and their working life. (Ellen is also an artist who has tucked her art aside in order to raise Seth.)

As Roger, Faist performs behind a mighty, walrus-like mustache that is virtually a character in itself. He endows the role with a puckish, sharp-eyed diffidence that belies both his ambition and his guardedness. The Braggs’ image-making (with cinematography by Jon Keng) isn’t as freewheelingly inventive, but, with its carefully calibrated framings and timing, it’s one with their dramatic sensibility, which is attuned to the delicate tones and moods of performance. Perhaps by way of coping with likely scant or underdecorated sets, the Braggs use a recurring trope of overhead shots, which create a metaphorical sense of Mr. Sharpe’s synoptic yet distanced overview of his own past.

One could probe and poke a bit and wish for a little more historical and political context, or more about Roger and Ellen’s experiences in New York, their families, their backgrounds, their past. (“Pinball” was produced by Moving Picture Institute, which is dedicated to making films “with captivating stories about human freedom”; I wonder whether its mission influenced the movie’s apolitical reserve.) Nonetheless, it feels apt that “Pinball” is coming out in the week following the woeful Oscars—it’s better than all ten of the Best Picture nominees, and 2023 will be a fine year in movies if there are five better lead performances than Faist’s or five better original screenplays. In its modest way, it’s a nearly great film.