Thursday, October 13, 2011

Moneyball (2011)

There's a line that Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the owner of the Oakland A's baseball team, repeats throughout Moneyball: "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." He's absolutely right about that sentiment. Baseball gets a bad rep for being the "slowest" of the four major sports in this country, since there's not dynamic point-scoring or anybody knocking the ever-loving trash out of each other. But where football is war, hockey is chaos, and basketball is showmanship, baseball is grace, a lyrical sport that operates on chance yet isn't completely out of control. A manager can determine the line-up, set the positions, but after that, it's all up to a combination of skill and luck.The better team (say, this year's Yankees) can fall to a lesser one (Detroit) at the last moment.

Reviews will tell you that this is not a movie about baseball. It's about the underdog fighting to be recognized. It's about a man's obsession with redeeming himself for his unfortunate choices of the past. These are true, don't get me wrong. But it IS about baseball as well. The film's focus lays on the A's 2002 season, as Beane struggles with the loss of the team's three biggest players and not enough money to replace them. With the help of an accountant, Peter Brand, (Jonah Hill), he puts his faith in a system of sabermetrics, in which non-superstars are hired based on their ability to get on-base more than home runs. This controversial plan loses him the faith of many scouts, as well as his manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but soon starts to work, much to the surprise of the baseball world.

The film is based on Michael Lewis' 2003 bestselling nonfiction book of the same name, which never really seemed like it would make a cinematic film. Of course, having Steve Zalllian and Aaron Sorkin working on the script didn't hurt, and the film buzzes with Sorkin's trademark dialogue. It helps that director Bennett Miller, finally following up his debut film Capote, has a deft understanding of the importance of image, adhering to the golden rule of "show, not tell" with vibrant pacing. And of course there's Pitt's electric performance, the film's centerpiece. He's always been much, much more talented as an actor than he's been given credit for, and he knocks this one out of the park (hee, baseball humor) as a man who's struggling to hold everything in his life together. His scenes with his younger daughter are particularly fantastic, even though the film has her sing a song that wouldn't exist for six more years (I get how it fits with the film thematically, so it's not terribly egregious, but it still stuck out in my mind).

What really sets the film apart, though, and makes it stand out in my mind at least, is the way history played out this story. *SPOILER ALERT OF SORTS, YOU CAN EASILY FIND THIS ON WIKIPEDIA* The 2002 A's won the American League West Division title after winning a Major League Baseball-record 20 consecutive games. However, they did not win the World Series, as Beane had built the team to do, instead facing another early elimination at the hands of the Minnesota Twins (divisional rival and wild-card winner Anaheim Angels would win the World Series that year). The glory days of the A's soon faded, as they've missed the playoffs seven of the nine years since, including this past season, in which they finished with 74-88 record and third place in the division. The A's still haven't won a World Series since 1989.

And yet other teams have adopted the idea of sabermetrics and seen it's successful use. The 2004 Boston Red Sox, as the film's postscript notes, used the system to win it's first World Series in 86 years (glory days that I, as a Sox fan, wish would return after this year's fiasco). It also helped small-market teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers become perennial contenders. In fact, just look at this year's playoffs, as so far the two highest-payroll teams in baseball, the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, were eliminated in the divisional rounds by teams with half their payrolls (the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively). The point being that sabermetrics does, to an extent, work, and has helped a handful of mid-level teams emerge as championship contenders.

So is Beane vindicated? There's plenty of ways to interpret this, which the film smartly leaves room for. Just like last year's The Social Network, Moneyball makes a great drama and a fascinating character study out of a potentially dry and uncinematic subject. A/A-

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