The Last Out
(USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Sami Khan, Michael Gassert
With his Oscar-nominated short St. Louis Superman, Sami Khan confirmed that a great character often makes for a great documentary. The film, directed with Smriti Mundhra, followed Ferguson resident Bruce Franks III on his growth from Black Lives Matter activist to state representative. Khan’s first feature doc The Last Out, directed with Michael Gassert, amplifies the number of key characters by three and the formula holds. The Last Out gives sports documentaries a unique spin by chronicling the journey that Cuban athletes take with hopes of securing their dream to play baseball professionally in the USA. The three characters, Happy Oliveros, Carlos González, and Victor Baró, hail from sunny Cuba where decades of tense relations between the Latin American nation and the USA haven’t squashed the power of the American dream.
The situation in Uncle Sam’s land is not quite as rosy, though. Decades of trade embargoes linger and Major League Baseball can’t simply recruit from Havana. Political difficulties between USA and Cuba mean that aspiring athletes must take a circuitous route for tryouts. Happy, Carlos, and Baró therefore leave Havana and establish residency in Costa Rica as the first step towards bypassing the embargo and pursuing their dream. They secure the help of a go-between named Gus, who provides them with lodging, food, and access to the scouts in exchange for 20 percent of their signing bonuses. However, that’s all contingent on the players securing a contract, for few Cubans actually make it to the major leagues. Even Carlos, who throws a ball at 95 mph isn’t an easy sell. Despite his obvious talent and demonstrated passion, the recruiters worry that he’s too short for a pitcher. No observation is too small, and yet these small details that determine hope and heartache give the film its emotional punch.
The process poses risks for everyone involved, since the three Cubans have the odds against them yet spend years away from their families. The recruitment phase is physically and psychologically demanding, too, since the three players endure rigorous training while demonstrating their skills to scouts. The film observes the three athletes on and off the field, taking in their grit, work ethics, and camaraderie. Although the players vie for the same opportunities, they’re all friends on the same time, united in a struggle and shared goal. Khan and Gassert ensure the audience experiences all the highs and lows of the players’ journey by keeping the cameras by their side throughout the journey.
Gus, meanwhile, tells the filmmakers that he previously served five years in prison for human smuggling after he was caught assisting hopeful Cubans. Whether this practice is altruistic, transactional business, or illegal dealing, the film leaves it to viewers to decide. One’s impression of the arrangement might change over the course of the film. The players display inevitable signs of frustration and exhaustion as deals fail to materialise or fall through. Their faith in Gus sags as their prospects dwindle. However, Gus and his aides also acknowledge their surprise at the outcomes and, in one case, their failure to care adequately for the aspiring athlete who placed his future in their hands.
Khan and Gassert convey the toll the tryout has on the players and their families by observing their quest for several years. The painstaking process traverses multiple countries as the players deal with the vicissitudes of their dreams and the challenges of realising them. Capturing images of the abject poverty the men hope to escape, but also hope to alleviate for their families by providing for them, the film witnesses the pressure that immigrants handle while taking enormous risks. Khan and Gassert gather remarkable footage, particularly in the film’s second act as the players separate after the strenuous disappointment of the tryouts gives them some perspective.
One player finds himself making the journey to America anew and the doc follows him through a perilous journey, riding in trucks, dealing with extortive smugglers, encountering prison, and racing to the border. Gassert’s background as a sound mixer is evident throughout The Last Out as the doc’s immersive soundscape adds to the immediacy of the tale, from the hubbub in the ballpark to the tense flurry of activity coming from all directions during the journey to the border. Beyond the superbly shot sequences in the dugout and infield, the footage from the trek offers revealing images of the hope the players place in America, as well as a compelling challenge to the narratives about immigrants and asylum seekers peddled by the Trump administration. The Last Out is an invigorating and eye-opening portrait of the love for the game one needs to succeed, but, more significantly, a revealing snapshot of the challenges immigrants face in pursuing the American dream.
The Last Out screens at DOC NYC through Nov. 19.