Growing up an Astros fan in Houston during the late 1980s meant Bradley Jackson, by default, was also a Nolan Ryan fan.
But the filmmaker admits that the most compelling chapter chronicled in his debut documentary, Facing Nolan, is the five-year stint with the Rangers that capped the Hall of Fame pitcher’s remarkable career.
“What he did with the Rangers was just so iconic and mind-boggling,” Jackson says. “You could argue that his first three or four years with the Angels was his best from a statistical standpoint. But in terms of amazement, you can’t beat those Rangers years.”
Ranger fans also will get the first crack at seeing the Ryan retrospective for themselves on Sunday at Globe Life Field, when it will screen following the game against the Atlanta Braves.
Ryan will be on hand to reminisce about those five seasons—all after he turned 42—that helped define a legacy of longevity, consistency, and durability, a blazing fastball, likely unbreakable records for no-hitters (seven) and strikeouts (5,714), and that legendary competitive fire.
“Like a lot of great projects, it was birthed out of a bit of professional jealousy,” Jackson says of the film’s origins, which stemmed from a second viewing of the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance. “Who’s another Michael Jordan, someone who competed at the highest level and did some amazing things? Being from Texas, Nolan Ryan popped into my head.”
He wrote up a detailed treatment and used a connection to get it into the hands of the Ryan family—namely, his wife, Ruth, and his sons, baseball executives Reid and Reese. They understood the vision, became champions for the idea, and managed to persuade Nolan, who has turned down projects like this before.
“Nolan is such a humble guy,” Jackson says. “He doesn’t necessarily want a fuss to be made about him. He was 10 times more excited to talk about his three children than he was to talk about his seventh no-hitter.”
Jackson covers Ryan’s upbringing and his stints with four franchises over his 27-year career—the Mets, Angels, Astros, and Rangers—interspersed with more personal snippets on the family cattle ranch.
Along the way, the film also ponders his place in baseball history. Ryan never won a Cy Young Award, lost 292 games, pitched in just nine postseason games, and walked more than 12 percent of the 22,575 batters he faced. Yet interviews with luminaries such as Pete Rose, George Brett, Rod Carew, and Roger Clemens persuasively highlight his accomplishments, tangible and otherwise.
“George Brett remembered these specific at-bats, every detail of how Nolan got the best of him, and he’s still mad about it,” Jackson says. “That was fun for those guys.”
The filmmakers spent a week at Globe Life Field interviewing Ryan’s former colleagues and teammates during his time in Arlington. Of course, the Robin Ventura skirmish comes up. The ex-White Sox third baseman evidently declined to participate.
Even hardcore baseball aficionados might find some surprising tidbits about his earlier years, such as Ruth’s influence after Ryan pondered quitting due to struggles with wildness in his first few seasons.
“He was going to cash it in,” says Jackson, who has been based in Los Angeles since 2016. “She told him that he had to keep trying.”
Facing Nolan premiered in March at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. After the local screening, it will show in selected theaters for one night only on May 24. It will be available on demand later this year.
“He’s still a bit intimidating, but he’s very kind, and it’s always enjoyable to talk to him,” Jackson says. “He’s also funny and appreciates good humor. I think he had a great time making it.”