I wonder if the U.S. government would have interred Japanese-Americans during World War II if Pearl Harbor had not happened, or even if the original plan of the Japanese had succeeded and they had formally declared war right before the attack. If there had not been a sneak attack and therefore no "day that will live in infamy," would that have changed what happened? Or was paranoia a necessary ingredient for the government to enact such a racist policy? "American Pastime" engenders such questions because virtually all of the film takes place in one of these interment camps. The title comes from the fact that the climax of the film is a baseball game between a team of Japanese-Americans from the camp and the local semi-pro team.
Lyle Nomura (Aaron Yoo) is so American he plays jazz saxophone. He also loves baseball and was going to go to college on a baseball scholarship when Pearl Harbor ended that dream. The Nomura family ends up in the Topaz Relocation Center near Abraham, Utah, and like the rest of the prisoners (they are called that in the film and not detainees) they try to make a new life in the camp. His brother Lane (Leonardo Nam) gets out of the camp by joining the Army and going off to fight in Europe for the country that has put his family in a camp. Their father, Kaz (Masatoshi Nakamura), loves baseball as much as he loves America and he sets up a league in the camp.
Top billing in the film goes to Gary Cole as Billy Burrell, a guard at Topaz who is hard hitting catcher for the local semi-pro baseball team (I understand Cole is the "big name" in the cast, but he should have gone with an "and" credit at the end). Cole's character is not the ultimate villain in the story; that would be the town's barber, Ed Tully (Jon Gries), who is the unrelenting racist in the film. But Burrell is the pivotal character because he is the one on the fence about the Japanese-Americans, especially after his son is killed in combat in the South Pacific. However, that does not appear to weigh as much on his mind as the fact that he almost made it to the Major Leagues. If Tully is the little devil on Burrell's shoulder there is another guard at the camp who is the angelic counterpart because he is the one who notices that the Japanese-Americans serving in the Army in Europe (such as Lane) are making a name for themselves as soldiers.
There have been other films set in such camps, such as "Come See the Paradise" and "Snow Falling on Cedars," which have primarily been romances set against the war and life in the camps. "American Pastime" does have a pair of young lovers from opposite sides of the fence (literally), but the romance takes a melodramatic term since Lyle falls for Katie (Sarah Drew), Burrell's daughter. Their fathers go the Montague-Capulet route on the subject, to the displeasure of their offspring and spouses, but the romance becomes a secondary consideration big game (even thought the two families actually manage to run into each other off the field DURING the game). The game itself is okay; as soon as you see who gets to be home team for this friendly little encounter a baseball fan should be able to figure out how this is going to play out. However, the movie does manage to come up with a way of making the final play of the game resolve a lot of the film's major issues.
I watched this 2007 movie after catching Ken Burns' documentary on PBS about "The War," where the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was a major thread, so it was interesting to know what the charcters are talking about in this movie regarding the high casualties the unit took effecting the rescue of the "Lost Battalion" in the Vosges Mountains of France in October 1944. But such things are just a reminder that there is a much larger story out there about what happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II than what this movie can show us. The term "concentration camp" dates back to camp used by the British in South Africa during the Second Boer War. My understanding is that during World War II the relocation centers where 100,000 American citizens of Japanese decent were sent during World War II were called concentration camps at the time. Of course, after the war the term became identified with the death camps run by the Nazis in Europe, but when I watch a movie like "American Pastime" that reminds us of what we did to our own citizens, I cannot help but think of places like Topaz as concentration camps on American soil.