Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Moneyball Movie Review

I’ve never really had any great love for the game of baseball. But the one time I remember really getting into it was the post 9/11 playoff season when it seemed like a Yankees victory in the World Series would magically heal the emotional wounds left over from that tragic day; when, in spite of the still-smoldering Ground Zero, we were able to focus on something that is otherwise meaningless in the grand scheme of things, whose very meaninglessness was all the more reason to assign more significance than it would otherwise merit.

We watched together at work as the Yankees took the ALDS against the Oakland A’s after dropping the first two games at home. Then they went on to defeat Seattle in the ALCS, but lost the Series to Arizona in 7 games. Nothing has brought back memories of that season more than Moneyball, Bennett Miller’s first feature since 2005’s Capote. Moneyball forced my perspective on the Division series to change, positioning the audience into empathizing with Oakland, three times on the brink of knocking down the mighty Yankees, but unable to make their $40M payroll compete with the Yanks’ eleventy billion. Who on the east coast knew that 3000 miles away, there were legions of fans immensely disappointed by the result of that Game 5? In the wake of disaster, New Yorkers certainly didn’t care. Watching the opening scenes, instead of reliving the joy of seeing the Yankees win, I felt the frustration and defeat of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), General Manager of the A’s, as he sits alone contemplating how he can possibly manage a team with less than one third the payroll of the biggest behemoth in professional sports.

The success of Moneyball is not that it makes us cheer for Oakland, but that it ties their successes and failures so tightly to Beane, and that the script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin paints him as a sympathetic character, not only in his desire to improve his team, but also as a human being and father to his 12-year old daughter.

Miller’s film is based on Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, about the way Beane and his hired hands used statistics in a new way to mold a team that could compete with significantly higher payrolls. Lewis, a financial journalist, also wrote the book on which The Blind Side was based, making him perhaps the most interesting and most successful provider of sports film source material.

The somewhat fictionalized (or embellished) storyline has Beane meeting with the Indians’ GM with an eye toward acquiring better ball players. What he comes away with is far more valuable than any base-stealing, power-hitting first baseman could provide. He finds Jonah Hill, taking a brief hiatus from his roles as the overweight and funny sidekick to play Peter Brand, a statistics analyst whom Beane hires to provide insight into his scouts’ player selection. The method of analysis, known as Sabermetrics, was developed by baseball historian Bill James, given a hat tip in the script, which attempts to make the case that it was this method that brought Oakland to the brink in 2002 and ultimately won the Boston Red Sox their first World Series in 86 years.

It’s a nice little fairy tale, one that makes for good sports drama, but I think the verdict is still out on whether Sabermetrics alone can be responsible for winning a championship. After all, Oakland still hasn’t even been in a World Series since Beane started using it nine years ago. Still, after an abysmal start to the 2002 season, they ended up winning 103 games to take first in the division, aided in great part by their record-setting streak of 20 wins from August 13 to September 4. The dramatic narrative has this improbable feat accomplished after Beane breaks his own rule about having any involvement with the players, when he first enters the clubhouse to break up the revelry led by Jeremy Giambi after losing a game. He promptly trades Giambi, makes a few other in-house change-ups, and the team starts winning.

Somewhat unbelievably, Beane and Brand are presented as the lone voices of the new – a team of Davids against the mighty Goliath of experienced MLB scouts and managers. After having his voice go unheard, the A’s lead scout quits and disgruntled manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) grumbles that he’s not been given a winning team to field. The reality is that Howe received a great deal of the credit for his team’s winning season, while Moneyball tells us it was Beane’s decision to embrace something different.

However, it’s Beane’s journey as a baseball man and a family man that drives the heart of the drama. In addition to making somewhat compelling drama out of a MLB season whose results we already know, this is what the film does best. A series of flashbacks highlighting Beane’s short-lived and less than thrilling MLB career as a player after some very promising prospects out of high school paint a picture of a man out to protect future acquisitions from the crushing disappointment he experienced and to redeem himself for choosing money over college. Even if he doesn’t achieve redemption in the public’s eye, it will do for his own sense of purpose.

The film’s best moments of writing are those involving Beane’s ex-wife Sharon (Robin Wright) and his daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey). There’s great naturalism in these scenes, as when Beane has to pick up Casey and has to awkwardly wait with Sharon and her new husband while waiting for the girl to arrive. The interaction feels just right and Beane delivers the perfect response to Casey’s step-father when he suggests they all hash out some rules regarding Casey’s cell phone. Better still is the development of the relationship between Beane and Casey, including a sweetly touching moment when they’re shopping for a guitar and she sheepishly plays a bit of a song she wrote, a song that sums up their relationship and sets in motion the impetus for Beane’s final decision in the film.

Dorsey is a real find, a wonderfully subtle young actress who could have a bright future. She’s effortless. Pitt plays Beane as a defeated man, shoulders hunched and face sunken. When he’s taking a meeting with the Red Sox at the end of the film, he’s able to hold his head high regardless of his ultimate decision based on a resolution never again to make a decision based on money.

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