I don’t have any real attachment to Major League Baseball; I like the sport itself but don’t follow it. However, even without that investment or knowledge, Facing Nolan is enjoyable enough. Nolan Ryan was a Major League pitcher for 27 seasons. He played for the New York Mets, California Angels and Houston Astros before settling in with the Texas Rangers to become the pride of Texan sporting. During his nearly three decades on the plate, Ryan pitched seven no-hitters and racked up 51 records for the sport, most of which remain unbroken. Through all of this, Ryan remained married to his high-school sweetheart and a devoted family man. Facing Nolan is basic in structure and probably a little hagiographic, but that’s part of the appeal for this type of film. Sports fans will likely love it.
Director Bradley Jackson’s documentary features interviews with Ryan’s former baseball teammates, all of whom vouch for the athlete’s stellar character and historic importance. It also chronicles some of Ryan’s most iconic moments at the plate, from his best plays to a physical brawl with Robin Ventura in his final season. The film is roughly chronological, with some exceptions, but doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of Ryan’s fellow players or the records he racks up along the way. It’s explained well enough for novices.
Along with copious archival footage, Jackson filmed new interviews with Ryan’s family, too. His grandchildren poke fun at him, as grandchildren do, but his wife, Ruth, is a little more upfront about the challenges of raising a family at the whims of Major League Baseball. “When you marry a baseball player, you really marry baseball,” she says. Through the years, the needs of Ryan’s family frequently factored in his decisions on where to play, including a terrifying ordeal when one of their sons was hit by a car while he was away that influenced his choice to move back to Texas for good.
Nothing about Facing Nolan is especially hard-hitting. It is, at its heart, a fan documentary about a player who still looms large in the minds of those who know his story. The only myth it analyzes in depth is one that has always followed Ryan — that he developed his incredible fastball throwing papers as a kid. Ryan’s own father debunked that one, pointing out that Nolan threw the papers from his car window with his left arm and not the right one that would take him so far. Ultimately, that’s OK. There’s a general goodness to Facing Nolan that comes through, an enthusiasm for the game and the role legends like Ryan play for fans of the sport. I left knowing a little more about baseball and a lot more about Nolan Ryan than I’ll probably ever remember, but I’m glad I gave it my time.