Sunday, September 25, 2011


(Brad Pitt/Moneyball, 2011)
          All you need to make a baseball movie is a ball, a bat and statistics. Those are, in fact, the principles Brad Pitt’s character Billy Bean operates on in Moneyball, and apparently the principles actual baseball operates on, to boot.  This isn’t even a case of art acting as a simile for reality, either, because Billy Bean is a real man—a baseball player turned one-time manager of the Oakland Athletics—and, as we all know from the many baseball movies that have been thrown at us, and from being in America, the idea that baseball might even be a mere slice of existence is absurd. Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game, Angels in the Outfield all said the same thing: Baseball is existence.
            Fine, so it’s the grandest of all metaphors. But even taking a game as some kind of sacrosanct truth means not simply fawning over it—it means getting down and dirty with each pitch, each glove, each bench-press and each character. In the latter category, at least, Moneyball does do its best. Billy Bean is trying to start a team on a tiny budget of $39 million. In the first skip of shots—director Bennett Miller somehow gets his film to skip across the screen—Billy is on the phone in seemingly every other one. He’s trying to hire players, make bargains, get cheap trades. He’s piecing his team together like any businessman would. He encounters a young scout at an early meeting named Peter Brand and, impressed with Brand’s diplomatic skills, hires him. Together they develop a statistical system of hiring players who perhaps don’t have great batting averages, but can nonetheless make it on base well enough, ultimately leading to more runs. And with a little thrift and lots of practice, any team can be a success, right? At first it seems, no way. Bean runs up against his fair share of insider opposition. Art Howe (the wonderful Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a seasoned Athletic’s coach who does not particularly care for Bean’s game-altering ambitions and tells him so. Commentator after commentator says the same thing; Bean doesn’t have it. His experiment is failing. They are only backed up by a prolonged losing streak that frames the first half of the film. And in the film, even if most of the games look green-screened, even if there is an overabundance of slow-motion and archival footage to cover for not much actual shot footage, there is always Brad Pitt—his head in his hands, his daughter looking concerned as they eat dessert—to show us the plausible essence of a baseball character: nervy, fast, in mid-leap in the training room, smirking in the office, head in hands when the other team is cheering. It was never even a metaphor for this snappy, easily bruised man.
(Jonah Hill/Moneyball, 2011)

            The most obvious criticism one could direct at Moneyball—that it’s a movie only fully understood by baseball fans—is, to be fair, not a good one. The pace at which the narrative moves, the craft of the whole piece (particularly the montages, which feel like echoes in a stadium) is too solid for the non-fan to walk out on. The deeper problem is the deeper problem with all sports movies, at least all American sports movies. Since sports are life to so many of us, then a sports movie is really a big, booming piece about everything we could possibly love. Moneyball first thinks it’s a hard-nosed walk-through course in team management, then it thinks it’s the same story we, as Americans, love to hear every single day. A story about individualism and refusing to cave in, and being right when everybody around us is wrong, and moving as fast and as physically and as literally as possible so that even when we fail, we still succeeded at something. This story, as played out in sports movies, is a more pragmatic version of Atlas Shrugged. Yet there are times when Moneyball actually seems to doubt its own protagonist. Whenever Philip Seymour Hoffman appears, slouching in a dugout, or hobbling around in an office, we immediately want to hear his side of the story. At one or two points, Miller and the screenwriters make us think we will hear it, but then it’s moving on, nothing to see here. There are scenes with distraught or confused players, questioning why Bean does not even fly with them, leading the viewer to believe Bean may learn one of those tear-jerker lessons about being more of a comrade and less of a cold fish. Nothing of the sort ever happens. The set up is that the individual knows what he’s doing and will succeed, the development is that the individual still knows what he’s doing and it’s exactly the same thing, the payoff is the individual has done that same thing to the ends of the earth and succeeded. Where is the subversion in this story? The movie sometimes plays as if it wants to be seen by businessmen more than sports fans, as some kind of manual for the rugged individual. The problem with this narrative is that it excludes too many viewers. Not just the skeptical and the sentimentality-averse will turn their heads; so will the discerning sports fan. 

            When it isn’t an individual-triumphs over all story, Moneyball is comfortable with being a regular baseball movie. At the risk of veering in to another obvious criticism, this means it willfully turns in to the sort of movie we’ve all seen before. Brad Pitt throws things and points fingers at people in desperation. An older, confident player learns to be a “role model” to a younger, less confident player. The soundtrack goes silent as a ball speeds in slow-motion towards a batter, wincing against the stadium lights that represent all eyes and expectations. A semi-militaristic, semi-gatorade-ad type score underlies all the crucial scenes. It’s the  dead images of the sports movie that still look technically beautiful, but lifeless by every other standard. Yet it is doubtful Hollywood will give up this formula any time soon. It will keep churning out these movies in which sports are so much more than just sports. But these are curveballs that no longer fly.