Tuesday, September 27, 2011

CRUNCH THOSE NUMBERS (AND PLAYERS)


The great American movie Moneyball centers on our great American sport -- baseball -- but is less about the sport itself and more about the people behind the scenes, most of who constantly grapple with one constant feeling: disappointment.  Baseball, after all, is a sport based on winning and losing, and Moneyball's lead character, Billy Beane (the wonderful Brad Pitt in full movie-star mode), the general manager of the Oakland A's, will stop and nothing in order to come out on top.  But because baseball is a game, only one team can say that they’ve won the “final game of the season.”  This is what Beane has been striving for his entire career, and the endless quest to win that final game will likely forever drive him as a competitor.  In terms of bucking the standard conventions of your typical sports movie, the brilliance of Moneyball lies in how it doesn't take a rote approach to telling a story focused on a sport that we’re all familiar with.  Much like last year's The Social Network (the two films share the invaluable Aaron Sorkin as writer) this is an "inside-the-machine" movie, looking at the sport of baseball from an analytical and statistical point of view.  But rather than bogging down the narrative with numbers and esoteric jargon to the point of confusion and/or boredom, Sorkin, and his estimable co-screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Searching for Bobby Fisher) have shaped Michael Lewis's book into an emotional journey for Beane, as a coach, father, and friend.
Choosing to center your film on the notion of “sabremetrics” was a bold and unique decision.  And considering the numerous starts and stops for Moneyball throughout its development, it’s remarkable that director Bennett Miller (Capote) was able to deliver such a clear cut vision (Steven Soderbergh was set to direct before the movie collapsed over “creative differences.”)  Taking a niche subject and a somewhat unfilmable book and turning it into a quietly powerful film is no easy task, so much credit needs to be given to Sorkin and Zaillian.  If you know their work, you’ll hear Sorkin’s witty, satiric voice in the rapid-fire dialogue, while the fluid structure, which deftly mixes flashbacks of Billy Beane’s subpar minor and major league career as a way of making correlations to what Beane as a manager was going through with his team, can be traced to Zaillian’s guiding hand in the organization department.  And instead of giving you a saintly approach to the head-coach role, as written, Beane is a man of steadfast convictions, willing to ruffle feathers, and more than happy to berate and fire people who aren’t valuing his new found philosophy.  Many of the film’s best scenes take place within the team’s closed-door strategy meetings with the scouts, all of whom were either phenomenally well cast or the real deal.  What Sorkin and Zaillian have done so well is that you don’t need to be a baseball expert to understand the sometimes arcane, economics-based approach to the sport that is on display.  Moneyball is an “inside-baseball” movie, something that really hasn’t been done before, and it sits right next to Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham as one of the best films to spotlight our national pastime.


But the key to Moneyball’s success is the rapport between Pitt and Hill, who both deliver Oscar worthy performances.  Pitt hasn’t been this out-right-likable and charming in years, and it’s a treat watching him literally transforming into his generation’s Robert Redford right before our eyes.  There’s an animal magnetism to Pitt as actor, and as he’s gotten older, the lines in his face and around his eyes have begun to express a vulnerability that was absent in his earlier work.  Pitt plays Beane as a man trying to be a better father to a daughter that he doesn’t get to spend enough time with, and as such, no matter how much of a thorn-in-the-side he is to his teammates (he makes many selfish decisions in an effort to preserve his vision), you’re always on his side.  Look at this performance and then contrast it to the tough-love-S.O.B. dad in The Tree of Life – this is a banner year for Pitt who has had a chance to stretch his range in ways that many people won’t really notice.  And Hill, the Apatow class-clown who has been killing it in every raunchy comedy made over the last 10 years or so, is a perfect partner for Pitt.  The two men couldn’t be any more different when it comes to performance style, personality, appearance, and expectation.  Hill, playing a fictionalized version of real-life-stats-guru Paul De Podesta named Peter Brand, gets the lion’s share of the movie’s laughs, but also registers strongly as a dramatic presence.  Without their bond, Moneyball wouldn’t be as powerful as it ultimately becomes; the two men teach each other about themselves and about the sport that they love.  It’s great to see Hill get a chance to do something serious, and between his work here and in last year’s dark comedy gem Cyrus, my guess is we’ll be seeing lots more from him in the future.  It should also be mentioned that Philip Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly good as Art Howe, the put-upon manager who has to deal with Beane’s unconventional methods.

Moneyball doesn't end in the last scene with the last play of the game on the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth.  It's not that sort of movie and doesn't want to be; it couldn’t be less interested in final-pitch heroics if it tried.  Wally Pfister’s intimate cinematography captures the sport in all of its glory when that sort of thing is called for, but instead takes a casual approach to the action, following Beane around relentlessly as he tries to figure out what his next move will be.  Mychael Danna’s subtle yet highly effective musical score helps underline the big emotional beats without ever grandstanding or calling attention to itself.  But what’s truly exceptional about the film is that it definitely does deliver a rousing, totally satisfying emotional release upon its conclusion, despite not bowing to the “final game” or “impassioned coach’s speech” cliché that we’ve seen a hundred times already. And when thought about at length, one realizes how the message of the film (echoed by Pitt’s daughter singing the lyric “You’re such a loser, dad” during the end credits) is that losing is part of our culture, and at the end of the day, it’s more about how you conduct yourself as a person than it is about how many games you’ve won.  In that sense, it’s very similar to Peter Berg’s fantastic high school football movie Friday Night Lights; it’s not about winning or losing, but about how the game has been played.

4 comments:

Fitz said...

Finally! A baseball film about the inner-workings of baseball. My number one complaint about films like Bull Durham and The Natural was that too frequently the focus was off the sport entirely. Moneyball has no such problems.

DA said...

I think your analysis is spot on. The film is a film about the machine that makes up the game. Every time a new machine is introduced the people who made the old model cast doubt on its very reason for being. Maybe Beane was crazy, maybe he had no other choice given his small market status - but what he did was to usher in a new generation of thinking.

And you write good too.

da

Actionman said...

As much as I loved the movie, I am so curious as to what Soderbergh would have done, especially after hearing that tech director talk on The Fan yesterday.

Colin Biggs said...

I've read that Soderbergh would have utilized Q&A sessions.