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Non-Review Review: Moneyball

I know nothing of baseball. Unlike the other great American sporting pastime of American Football (or, I guess, “football” to them), I simply can’t wrap my head around the activity, which seems (to me) to be a strange mix of rounders and the imaginary “whack bat” from The Fantastic Mr. Fox (which was undoubtedly intended as a parody of cricket, to mix my metaphors even further). It takes a lot for me to invest in a movie about an activity that I can barely comprehend, and Moneyball accomplishes that, by managing to craft one of the most telling and relevent sporting movies I’ve seen in quite some time. I think the film does struggle to establish an emotional connection, but it’s a very clever and very intriguing little movie.

Field of dreams...

There is a lot to like about Moneyball. Brad Pitt gives an impressive lead performance as William Beane, the beleaguered general manager of the Oakland Athletics. The movie follows Beane’s attempts to revolutionise and reimagine the sport, adhering to mathematical formulas and studied statistics to construct a winning team on a microscopic budget. As one might imagine, Beane meets opposition from the establishment, the talent scouts and the coaches, all of whom peddle the myth of “gut instinct” as a means to maintain their control over the national pastime.

As Beane, Pitt manages to look like he’s struggling. His eyes seem to age of the course of the film, almost sinking back into his skull as the movie continues, and the results pour in. As in any sporting movie, the initial indications aren’t good, and Pitt manages to effortlessly convince you that Beane is hanging on to his job (and his faith) by the skin of his teeth. Of course, the movie’s never toosombre and Pitt is charming and engaging throughout, but it takes a wonderful leading actor to convince you that, beneath the surface, there’s a forty-year-old man terrified about the consequences of making a bad call.

Beane counter...

Pitt is so good, that the subplot involving Beane’s background and family feels almost completely unnecessary. As the film starts up, we’re introduced to Beane, and we see why he has come to mistrust the judgment of the talent scouts and the coaches – and, arguably, even his own. Indeed, right down to the very final frame, it seems like Beale is a man who simply doesn’t have the capacity to make the correct “gut call” in a tough spot, and it’s his decisions to “bet against the odds” that cost the man dearly. It’s very insightful, and it manages to craft a compelling character out of Beane.

I think the movie’s biggest problem lies with its attempts to emotionally invest us in Beane himself. We’re introduced to his ex-wife and her new lover, and to his young daughter. However, it makes for a strange contrast to the method Beane himself espouses – a relatively dispassionate and unsentimental approach to the mechanics of baseball. Teaching his assistant, Peter Brand, to fire somebody, he insists that Brand be brutally blunt, and avoid sugar-coating it. Beane doesn’t travel or socialise with his players, because he doesn’t want to engage with them – he feels it compromises him. One might argue the film would have been better served to adopt a similar approach.

Not a team player...

It almost seems like Moneyball is a little insecure about the idea that Beane is the central character. After all, the revolutionary mathematics that fundamentally alter the sport aren’t his idea. It’s not his hard research that turns up the results. In many ways, it seems like Peter Brand should be the focal point of the story. Of course, it’s Beane who bets the house on Brand, who supports and encourages him. As Beane points out at the pair’s lowest ebb, it’s Beane who will suffer if this goes pear-shaped. Brand has an economics degree from Yale to fall back on, while Beane is forty years of age with only a high school diploma to his name. The focus on Beane’s family seems to exist to convince us that he’s really the central character – but there’s no need. Beane is very clearly the character with the most to lose and the one taking the giant leap without a safety net, so those plot elements do feel a little redundant.

Aside from that, though, there’s no other real complaints to level against the baseball film, and any number of wonderful positives. Jonah Hill is great in the supporting role of Peter Brand, cleverly leveraging his comic timing in a rare dramatic turn. It doesn’t feel at all uncomfortable for the actor, in sharp contrast to various other comedians wading into the ocean of dramatic performances. It helps that Pitt and Hill actually have a fantastic chemistry, which is something I honestly never could have foreseen. They just work really well together, and you get the sense that Beane and Brand have this very odd, yet surprisingly solid, understanding of one another. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in another in a long line of strong supporting performances, and I suspect that – between here and The Ides of March – he might be heading for a “cumulative”Oscar nomination.

Best seats in the house...

Director Bennett Miller has a wonderful eye, and is well aware that working on a baseball movie affords him any amount of impressive surroundings. Seriously, you really get a sense of the scale of these modern amphitheatres, even when the characters are walking through them while they are empty. Miller just seems incredibly confident with his actors and his materials, and is relatively unintrusive, allowing the movie to flow somewhat gracefully through its not-inconsiderable two-and-a-quarter-hour runtime. In particular, there’s one lovely shot of Beane driving up an off-ramp, shot from the motorway, with the camera and his car in perfect synch as he turns around it’s just great.

While I appreciate what Mychael Danna was trying to do – his soundtrack evokes those powerful and solemn variations on the anthems played in these modern-day coliseums – I did find his score occasionally overwhelming, but only towards the start of the film. As the movie gathers pace, and as Beane’s experiment morphs into a grand accomplishment, it begins to sound a lot more suitable.

King of the Hill...

However, what I like most about Moneyball, I think, is the way that it toys with the formula of these sorts of films. It doesn’t revolutionise them, it doesn’t turn them upside down, but it does seem to have jotted down the formula for a film like this, and done a little bit of tinkering. While Moneyball is the story of a little guy taking on an embattled establishment, it’s fascinating that the protagonist is the one arguing for cold and hard logic, while the antagonists are espousing the virtues of “guts” and “heart” and that sort of thing. It’s very frequent to see the hero fighting “against the odds” and flying in the face “rationality” – think of the films hinging on that “one in a million” chance, or “the little guy who could.”

Instead, Moneyball’s heroes are advocating playing the numbers rather than risking it all on the human component. There’s no stirring oration to the team in their darkest hour, no attempt to give a “six inches in front of your face” speech in the dressing room. In fact, it’s the antagonistic establishment that would believe in stuff like that. While the film does convince us that both Beane and Brand are romantics about the sport, it’s fascinating to see a movie where the right course of action is to buy and sell and trade people like commodities, rather than fostering an emotional attachment to them. In many ways, this almost feels like a softer companion to The Social Network, another Aaron Sorkin story where the nerds take on the jocks to revolutionise the world. Of course, it’s not a radical departure from any other sporting drama, because it still broadly adheres to the formula, and Beane and Brand are still underdogs fighting against a conservative system, but it does change things up just enough to keep them fresh and interesting.

A solid pitch...

Indeed, there’s a moment near the climax of the film, as the team seem to have the chance to vindicate their approach. If you know the true story, or if you’ve seen the film, you know the moment I’m talking about. It’s the bit where, in any other sporting movie, the heroes would be ten points down with ten seconds to go… and then something truly magical happens. Here, instead, the team are quite a few points up… and I won’t spoil it for anybody. Sufficed to say that things start out quite strange and end relatively conventionally. Moneyball is a film that seems to like its metaphors, as Brand points out to Beane, so I think there’s something oddly appropriate about the fact that movie’s climactic sports match serves as the perfect metaphor for the film itself. Just unconventional enough to make things interesting, but just conventional enough to work as this type of film.

Moneyball is a nice little sports film, that really has a lot going for it. It has great direction, a clever script, and a solid cast. It sometimes struggles a bit while trying to emotionally engage its audience, but it always interests us.

2 Responses

  1. It may not feel quite like the classic baseball movie others have achieved, but it’s certainly pleasant enough to be enjoyable even by non-sports fan, and features great performances from Hill and Pitt. Good review my dude.

  2. I love this review, especially the first paragraph which I can relate to. I remember the first time I saw The Natural how confused I was but now it’s one of my favourite movies. I’m really excited to see Moneyball, and Brad in another good role.

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