Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day 57: Moneyball

"How can you not get romantic about baseball?"

Preach it, brother. Moneyball has the same romantic streak for the game of baseball that fuels the other great romantic baseball films like Field of Dreams and The Natural. It's a movie that's way inside the game, but also has the smarts to appeal to people who may not know much about the game. It does it in the best, smartest way possible, by not pandering to the lowest common denominator. It expects you to keep up, whether you know what they're talking about or not, and it rewards your patience and resolve, much like the game of baseball itself.

Now, a quick summation of my feelings on the over-arching theme of the book and film. I don't feel that Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta (changed here to the fictional Peter Brand) necessarily changed the game. I think it was Michael Lewis' book Moneyball that changed the game because it gave away all of the secrets these two men had figured out. It's no secret that they did something radical, and it paid off to some extent, but once that book came out, and everyone was able to figure out the method to their madness, that's what changed the game.

When men like Theo Epstein adopted the philosophies that Beane and company implemented in Oakland, the game was forever altered. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is not for me to decide, but personally, I think it was one step towards undoing a lot of the damage that was done to the game in the steroids era, if for no other reason that it started to put value back on role players rather than guys that swing a big bat.

The film opens with Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, looking so much like Robert Redford in this scene, it's eerie) sitting in an empty stadium, listening to his team lose the 2001 division series to the reviled New York Yankees. His team is now at a crossroads. They're about to lose three of their biggest players to free agency, and he is not going to get any more money to put together another team like the one he had, so his orders are simple: Put together a championship team with the money they are giving him.

The game of baseball is one of serious financial inequality. Unlike the NFL & NBA, there's no salary cap in baseball, so it allows big market teams to buy as many players as they want, pay them whatever they want, leaving smaller market teams, like the A's, to make due with the players they can buy with the limited resources they have.

On a trip to Cleveland to talk to their GM Mark Shapiro about a possible trade, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistician, who Shapiro seems to put a lot of faith in. Beane strikes up a conversation with him, and ends up deciding that his method of valuing players by things like on base percentage (later to be referred to as saber-metrics) is something he wants to try in Oakland, so he buys Brand away from Cleveland and sets out putting together a team of cast-off and misfit players that nobody values anymore. Beane puts so much credence into Brand's system, that he begins summarily ignoring what his scouts have to say, putting him in a precarious position where everyone seems to turn their back on him for ignoring the way the game has been played for over a hundred years.

Beane's present day struggles are intercut with his past as a former player. He was drafted in the first round of the 1980 draft by the New York Mets, and was talked up as the next big thing, a true five tool player. He failed to live up to these expectations, and revelations about his playing career are given at moments when he seems to be failing in the present. It's an interesting way to approach the source material, and I think it's incredibly effective. It certainly gives Pitt the opportunity to really sink his teeth into some meaty, actor-y stuff, and it pays off brilliantly. The entire script, written by two modern masters, Aaron Sorkin & Steve Zaillian, is ridiculously good. It never sacrifices the game for drama and vice versa, and it walks a tightrope between the two that ends up making it that much better a screenplay and film as a result of its ambition.

If you don't know much about baseball, or the 2002 season, I won't spoil it for you, but the way the film handles the ups and downs of that season is incredibly effective, and made me, a die hard baseball fan, forget about certain milestones this team achieved. The film also includes details about Beane's personal life and his tenuous relationship with his ex (Robin Wright), as well as his only real relationship with anyone outside of work, his daughter (Kerris Dorsey, a wonderful young actress). All of these gamuts pay off, even though you think they won't. The film has a very light touch and handles all of these multiple storylines well. The film is directed by Bennett Miller, who's only other film, Capote, really made me wonder why on earth he was directing a baseball movie, but as the film goes on, you see what really attracted him to the material, and why he ends up being an excellent choice to direct the film.

Brad Pitt has truly earned his status as one of the greatest living film actors, and he is outstanding here. Between his performances here and in Tree of Life, he has had a truly remarkable year. A lot has also been made of Jonah Hill's performance (it earned him an Oscar nomination). I will say this, he's good, almost to the point of making you forget that he's never really acted before, he's always just sort of played a variation on the angry, young fat guy, but he shows here that he does have talent. I don't know how deserving of a nomination he is, but I certainly won't roll my eyes when he turns up in a movie from now on.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays former A's manager Art Howe, and he is sorely underused. Don't get me wrong, he's great in all of his scenes, but he's given only a handful of scenes, and makes you wish he had more to do because of his little flourishes that make him one of the elite actors working today, like the way he fidgets with his watch while waiting to talk to Beane near the beginning.

If you don't like baseball, I promise you'll still like Moneyball, and if you do like baseball, you'll appreciate the film all the more for its ability to be deep inside the game and also be a great drama to boot.

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