Saturday, October 08, 2011

Moneyball / **** (PG-13)

Billy Beane: Brad Pitt
Peter Brand: Jonah Hill
Art Howe: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Scott Hatteberg: Chris Pratt
David Justice: Stephen Bishop
Casey Beane: Kerris Dorsey

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Bennett Miller. Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin. Based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis. Running time: 133 min. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language).

I’m not a baseball person. I got most of my passion for any sports from my father, who turned me into an avid football fan, but none of my family ever watched baseball when I was growing up. My dad got into it long after I’d left home and my brother has become a fan as well. I suppose the fact that my area Major League team is the Kansas City Royals hasn’t helped me develop a taste for it. I’ve enjoyed the games I’ve seen in stadium, but I just can’t get into all the numbers that the majority of baseball fandom seems to be about.

As a cineaste, however, I can tell you that no sport has provided more great movies than that of baseball. The new true-life story of “Moneyball” is in the best tradition of great movies based on sports. It tells the story of Billy Beane, one time pro player who finds himself later in life the general manager of the financially challenged and performance struggling Oakland A’s. Beane became famous in 2002 for building a roster of players based on a computer program that calculated the best percentages of under valued players getting on base. His outside of the box thinking paid off by producing the longest winning streak in league history and a trip to the playoffs for one of the league's lowest budget teams. Beane feared that not making it to the World Series would erase his achievement from the history books, but after his amazing season many of the league franchisees adapted his methods of recruitment.

I didn’t know much of this going into the movie, but any knowledge of the events depicted here has little impact on the effectiveness of the filmmaking. “Moneyball” is a basic great movie. It isn’t flashy. It doesn’t have car chases or sex scenes. It doesn’t go into drug use. It doesn’t muddy up its story with a romance or a false conflict with a superior. It doesn’t give you a rollercoaster rise and fall story. There isn’t even really a whole lot of baseball in it. It’s simply a fascinating story about a real person and the thing he did that nobody believed would work.

Brad Pitt plays Beane. We see him struggling with frustration towards his scouts as they maintain business as usual after the team loses their three marquee players to teams with more money. They don’t understand his notion that they’re playing a game with the big budget teams that they cannot win. They’ve accepted it; he refuses.

With this performance and his work in the past summer’s “The Tree of Life”, Pitt is bound to have a major push for a best actor nomination this awards season. It is more likely that his work in the previous film will garner the awards bid, but his presence in this film, along with his producer’s credit here, is bound to play a role in an inevitable nomination. In keeping with the overall mood of the movie, Pitt plays Beane with a cool demeanor that rarely discloses the tension he holds beneath the surface. There is a funny moment when he asks his daughter if he looks worried. She doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that he does.

Beane finds a kindred spirit when he goes to Cleveland to bargain for a new marquee player. He notices that a meek little man in the corner seems to have the ear of the manager and therefore the GM on every player decision. This man is Peter Brand, who feels that he is misunderstood although he is listened to by upper management to some degree. He sees a gaping misuse of talent in the league, and soon discovers that instead of buying a marquee player, Beane has purchased him to be Oakland’s new Assistant GM.

Jonah Hill (“Superbad”) deserves as much, if not more, acclaim for his performance here as Pitt does. Hill’s presence here suggests that he will play the sassy sidekick that he has in the variety of gross out comedies that populate most of his resume. On the contrary, Hill plays Brand as even more subdued than Pitt’s fairly laid back Beane. In doing this, Hill is able to capitalize on an actor’s greatest skill—the ability to listen.

I can’t remember a major role in which we get to see an actor truly listen to the people around him as much as we get to see Hill listening in this movie. It makes his character stronger that he has the patience to take in what everyone else is doing and telling him. When he does speak, it is important. The juxtaposition of that importance against Hill’s quiet, benevolent delivery makes him more real, more in the moment than most performances you’ll see in any other major Hollywood production.

Director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) and screenwriters Steven Zaillain (“American Gangster”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) trim all the fat off this story, so all you get are the essentials. There aren’t the typical histrionics that populate most real life sports stories. There are no dramatic realizations, no surprising revelations. This is a pure workplace drama, where everyone behaves pretty much as if this is his everyday job. There are players who are partiers, but everybody knows that ahead of time. People are fired and traded to other teams, but that’s part of the business of professional sports. Everybody behaves as if this is their chosen path and they have to live with it.

The filmmakers do award the audience one sports cliché in their depiction of the A’s record-breaking 20th consecutive win. But this is not done merely as some dramatic device, because it really happened. The A’s really did have an 11-0 lead that the Kansas City Royals actually overcame to nearly stole the game away from the A’s. Because of the nature of this nail-biting event, it plays like one of those sports movie moments. But, it also gives the dramatic closure that the A’s failed to find in the big game that year.

Unlike many cinematically reproduced stories from real life, “Moneyball” lacks all the expected rhythms and developments of formula. Instead it considers its subject, not as something greater than the real world from which it is inspired, but rather a part of reality. It is grounded and set in its true origins. The men depicted in it are just men. They changed the business direction of an American institution, but they were only trying to do their jobs. In depicting their story simply and succinctly, the filmmakers have realized a mirroring accomplishment with their film about those men. This is what they did. This is how they did it. The movie lets that speak for itself.

1 comment:

Danmark said...

Baseball, I love. Statistics... I could leave. Lewis somehow makes both halves of this book interesting.

Don't get me wrong, it's not really a book about crunching numbers... it's a story about the science behind a sport, the brains who take that science to the next level, and the brawns who sometimes dogmatically resist them.