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Facing Nolan documentary
Image: SXSW

Film

Facing Nolan Tells the Record-Breaking Tale of Pitcher Nolan Ryan 

The Ryan Express is coming.

SXSW 2022: Facing Nolan

Nolan Ryan, in his 27-year baseball career, set more than 50 records, including most strikeouts in a season and career, and the most no-hitters, and he was the oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter, at age 44. 

Ryan pitched until he was 47 years old, which is three years older than Tom Brady is now. And Ryan, unlike the ageless Brady, actually looked his age in the latter part of his career. Ryan is also notorious for the 1993 incident, well into his 40s, when he gave Robin Ventura — a player two decades his junior — a noogie during a brawl. 

He was a no-doubt Hall of Famer, but Ryan never won a Cy Young Award, and his only championship came right at the beginning of his career. 

All of that and more is explored in Facing Nolan, a new documentary about the legendary pitcher. Directed by Bradley Jackson, it’s rarely straightforward biographical doc about one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. It doesn’t do anything to reinvent the form and doesn’t reveal much about Ryan that isn’t common knowledge but it deserves credit for not looking like it was produced by Major League Baseball, or by ESPN. 

It’s a good fit with South by Southwest since Ryan is from Texas, still lives there, and had long stretches with both the Rangers and Astros. 

Facing Nolan documentary
Image: SXSW

Ryan is 75 now, nearly 30 years out of the game, although he did serve as the team president of the Rangers for a time. He’s something of a man of few words who doesn’t have a ton of notes to say about his career. But that slack is taken up by a star-studded group of interviewees. 

The film leans very heavily on an “old baseball men telling old baseball stories” vibe, with plentiful archival footage to remind you of just how ridiculous baseball stadiums, uniforms, and facial hair looked in the 1970s and ’80s (Ryan, of course, pitched for the Houston Astros during their era of rainbow uniforms.) 

Interviews with many Hall of Famers, including George Brett, Cal Ripken, Rod Carew, Randy Johnson, Dave Winfield, and a couple of notable non-Hall of Famers, Pete Rose, and Roger Clemens. However, Robin Ventura, likely not eager to revisit the most embarrassing moment of his life, did not agree to be interviewed for the film. 

Also featured is George W. Bush, who prior to his presidency was the owner of the Texas Rangers when Ryan pitched for them, even though the two men are the same age. With Bush, it does that thing, invented by The Last Dance and now in seemingly every sports documentary, in which the interview subject is handed an iPad to watch a clip and react to it. 

Speaking of owners, the film covers various tough contract negotiations from throughout his career, we learn that baseball owners back then were the same greedy fat cats they are today, although Ryan was also the first team sports athlete to make $1 million in a season, the sort of salary that these days might fetch a backup shortstop. 

There’s no word on distribution yet, but anyone who followed baseball between the 1960s and the 1990s will likely find a lot to enjoy in Facing Nolan. 

  • Stephen Silver

South by Southwest celebrates the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. Follow our coverage all month!

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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