Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Story by Stan Chervin based on the book by Michael Lewis; Directed by Nicolas Bennett Miller. Stars: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Story: The story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to field his team.
Seen by Lars & Adam, September 25, 2011
I’m not a big fan of sports movies in general. It’s not that I don’t see their appeal. It’s just that it’s mostly the same story over and over again: Underdog fighter/player/team is struggling to make it. An event occurs which makes them change/try harder/see the error of their ways. At first it doesn’t work and they begin to doubt themselves. Then there’s a breakthrough and they end up coming out on top. We cheer how they triumph against adversity and believe that anything is possible, if you just have faith. In the end, the best sports films are not about the sport in question, they are meditations on the human condition.
I also have absolutely no affinity for baseball. In my native Denmark, it’s basically a children’s game. Granted, with slightly different rules and played with a softer ball, but to all intents and purposes, it’s the same game. I used to love to play it, when I was a kid, but there was never a possibility of making it something that could be pursued as a career. Hence, I find professional baseball somewhat humorous, even if I once had a great day at Wrigley Field watching the Chicago Cubs and drinking beer in the sun. It’s just that it seems odd to me for grown men to play this game for a living.
The reason for this preamble is just to put it into perspective how low my expectations were, when I walked into a screening of “Moneyball”. Hence, it was quite a surprise to find that, after a slow start, the movie was riveting, even if it did mostly adhere to my above breakdown of how sports movies work.
A lot of the kudos must go the writers. Not only is “Moneyball” based on a book written by the excellent Michael Lewis, who has reported insightfully about both Wall Street (“Liar’s Poker”) and sports (“The Blind Side”, which was turned into a movie a few years ago). The screenplay was done by Steven Zaillian and the genius Aaron Sorkin, who is probably the best dialogue writer working today (see “The Social Network” and “The West Wing”).
Bennett Miller is not the most obvious choice of director. His only other feature film credit is “Capone”, a biography of the writer Truman Capone, who was surely no baseball fan (I’d guess). Originally, Steven Soderbergh was attached as the director, but the old stand-by excuse, ‘creative differences’, made him leave the project and make room for Miller. Thankfully, Miller focuses more on the human drama off the field. The single best scene in the movie features Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill working the phones and concocting a scheme to ensure the Oakland coach does things their way.
The actors are uniformly excellent. Brad Pitt is getting better as he’s getting older and less of a pretty boy that the camera just drools over. Here’s he is giving a solid portrayal of a man who has no other option than to believe that he can change things for the better by going completely against conventional wisdom. It’s also nice to see Jonah Hill play against his normal shtick. He is the geeky number cruncher who adamantly believes that statistics can change the game, if you know how to read and act on them. This may be the last time we see Hill fat, as he’s shed about half his weight since this movie. He looks like a completely different person now. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a great job as the coach who is not drinking the kool-aid, until all of a sudden the plan works. Looks also for Spike Jonze, who pops up in an uncredited cameo that must make the real-life person the character is based on cringe, if he ever sees the movie.
Thankfully, the movie avoids most of the sports movie clichés and the end is not what you’d expect. That alone makes it a better movie in my book. Finally, as a curious aside, the lovely little ditty that Pitt’s daughter sings to him was recorded by Lenka in 2008. But the movie is set in 2002. Anachronism, ahoy!
In the days leading up to seeing “Moneyball” most people asked me if I thought a baseball move could live up to the hype this film was getting. First of all, since when were movies that feature baseball lousy? I can think of a range of films from the dramatic “The Natural”, “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham” to comedies like “Major League” all of which had much to offer. More importantly, films that use baseball as a backdrop rarely are really about the sport; the metaphor for life, additional chances, living day to day, overcoming obstacles, being an hero, working as a team, dealing with authority, winning and losing are all components of America’s pastime, so it’s no surprise that baseball films often work if (of course) they have strong characters and a decent story.
That’s the case with “Moneyball,” where Pitt plays Billy Beane, a former child star ballplayer destined to be a hall of famer, but who simply didn’t make it (a New York Met prospect - go figure), but who didn’t give up on the game that gave him such a hard time. He decided to use his smarts (he was offered a scholarship to Stanford) to become a dedicated baseball scout, and eventually became the General Manager of the Oakland A’s. Struggling with the budget afforded him versus the stratospheric payroll of the New York Yankees, Beane realized it was impossible to compete with the Yanks on the field if the A’s operated in the same way with them off the field. He needed an edge in the way he built his team and found it via Peter Brand, an young exec with the Indians who examined player statistics like no one else, likening players to commodities and a team not unlike a mutual fund. It was exactly the different perspective Beane was looking for, and adopting Brand and Brand’s thinking was a gamble he was willing to take. The rest of the film explores the results of that decision; the effect that decision has on Beane’s and Brand’s careers, their relationships with players and coaches, Beane’s inner demons and his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, and the way this thinking affected baseball forever.
Pitt, Hill and Hoffman provide outstanding performances from an exceptional script by two of the best writers in Hollywood. And Miller, a documentary director, gets the best of his cast in the film. For a story that is completely linear and totally historical, you’re still on the edge of your seat. This will garner several nominations I’m sure, and rightfully so; it’s about going against the grain, taking risks, not listening to convention, but rather to your own conviction and your heart, believing in others, and never giving up. That’s baseball. And that’s Hollywood entertainment.