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Zettel Film Reviews » Moneyball – Bennett Miller. Sorkin: a Dickens for our times

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Moneyball – Bennett Miller. Sorkin: a Dickens for our times

 

Aaron Sorkin and Brad Pitt

 

 

Moneyball – Bennett Miller

Aaron Sorkin is a Dickens for our times (of which more at a later date). He is already an acknowledged master of the Television Series; and through writing like Sports Night, Studio 60 Sunset Strip and his masterpiece, the first 3 series of The West Wing, he excels in the modern equivalent of the narrative novel which Dickens helped to define.Moneyball (jointly scripted with Steven Zaillian – Schindler’s List) follows up the screenwriter’s Oscar-winning The Social Network and shares with that richly layered film, acute characterisation; intelligent, witty dialogue; and a resonant exploration of the personal and moral dilemmas posed for a character based upon a real person caught up in actual events. Also, like The Social NetworkMoneyball is an unlikely subject for a Hollywood film: a troubled year in the life of the manager of a baseball club. And just as Network examined the revolutionary effect of ego and profit-driven communications technology on our basic human relationships like friendship, so Moneyball uses the conflicts and contradictions between baseball as a business and baseball as a sport to explore the current state of many American personal and cultural values.

For those of us who know what it is to love a sport, especially Sorkin who unlike me, understands and loves baseball, Moneyball has a sad, salutary tone. Films like The Natural and especially Field of Dreams, have famously seen baseball as a metaphor for all that is best in America: determination, physical courage, love of the spirit of the game, triumph of the underdog against all the odds. The faith at the heart of the American Dream that the equation: talent + determination and hard work = achievement – must work. In a telling moment towards the end of the film, nerdy Yale graduate economist Peter Brand who has helped Billy Beane General Manager of the Oakland Athletics shake the money-tree of baseball, voices this cliché “it’s a metaphor”. Wearily, like the disillusioned but unbowed idealist events have made him, Billy replies “ I know it’s a metaphor.” Infused with the implacable financial and sporting necessities the film has highlighted, Sorkin has no need to add the caveat “but a metaphor for what?” Sorkin’s great quality as a writer is to trust his listener to become actively engaged, to think for themselves, to do some work. As with many great writers, it is what he leaves out that often resonates most powerfully.

Just a word about “it’s not just about baseball” – the most common remark made about this film. While this is in a sense true, it is the assumption that often underlies the remark I want to question. The suppressed premise here is hidden in the ’just’: i.e. that if it were, just about baseball/sport, then it must be superficial, without depth or insight, without relevance to lives not spent chasing a ball about for ludicrously excessive rewards. This snootiness, much peddled by ‘serious’ journalists, i.e. the ones not writing about sport, is vacuous. The abiding appeal of sport in all its forms is that it offers a theatre of life where we can see acted out: courage and cowardice, fairness and injustice, risk and reward, honour and cheating, team spirit and gang mentality etc etc. Lives and careers can hang on a single moment, a critical irreversible decision that must be made instantly without the luxury of time to consider or plan. Sport is a metaphor for life: not in the sense of exemplifying a certain set of values, though that can at times be true, but because it distils, concentrates, the conflicting necessities of life and the challenges they present us with: the implacable demand that we take on the responsibility to act; to influence events and accept the consequences of so doing. Sport reveals to us the personalities and characters of the men and women who act it out before us: they are naked before us in a way no actor and certainly no politician ever is. We see them in extremis and judge them accordingly – admiration or condemnation. And we reveal much of ourselves in who and what we admire and condemn. As does society at large.

Field of Dreams is a profoundly moving film about fathers and sons but it cannot be detached from the context of baseball because it is based upon the shared love of father and son for this pointless yet endlessly challenging and demanding activity. The Natural and even The Hustler show us those critical moments when challenges to ethical and moral integrity are failed; Chariots of Fire the conflict of ambition and faith, of the spirit of belief and its letter.Downhill Racer makes us feel the poignancy of knowing that the paradigm experience of one’s life, the moment one felt most alive, is gone for ever and cannot be recreated.

That there are relatively few satisfying and as yet no great fictional films about sport is not because it is trivial, or shallow but because fictional dramas, however brilliantly created are not infused with the thrill of true danger, actual risk the inherent uncertainty of sport constantly generates. If sports films do not satisfy, seem trivial and unimportant, it is because of the film, not the sport. At its very best, sport is not a pale imitation of life: it is life that is a pale imitation of sport. And those of us not gifted with the ability to be able to do it are privileged to be able to watch those who can.

Billy Beane is still General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team in California. The action of Moneyball takes place in the 2002 American League baseball season. Having lost the critical final game of the previous season, three of their key players were poached by much wealthier clubs leaving Beane to face a new season without his best players or the money to replace them.

A victim therefore of his own success, Beane is forced to re-build a team without access to the recognised ‘best’ players. Realising he can’t beat this disadvantage on its own terms he teams up with overweight, nerdy baseball-lover Peter Brand. An economics Graduate of Yale, Brand’s obsessional analysis of the overwhelming array of statistics, long a feature of the baseball culture, questions the ‘all-round star player’ concept. With a profoundly American faith in breaking down big, complex problems into smaller components (and don’t mock – it landed men on the moon) Brand de-constructs baseball into a series of critical components – like always getting to 1st base – and he and Beane then build a team where all the critical components for winning are covered – not by a single star player but by combinations of players working as a team excelling at individual components of the winning game. The major advantage of this strategy is that these more narrowly skilled players are undervalued by a system that is obsessed with stars: thus Beane can afford them.

In the muscular testosterone-fuelled atmosphere with its unflinching faith in the star-based system of the army of scouts that comprise an American baseball club, Beane’s new advisor (a superbly under-playing Jonah Hill) could not be more out of place and has to cope with an aggressive hostility that tests to the full his belief in his own analysis. One of the many threads in the film is Brand’s development under Beane’s forceful management, from detached analyst to accountable strategist. When the result of Brand’s advice is that a player must be sold or fired, Beane makes Brand do it. There is much to learn about good man management in Moneyball.

Beane and Brand’s strategy is initially undermined by old-school veteran coach Art Howe (a restrained but effective Phillip Seymour Hoffman) but eventually he is brought on board and from 11 successive losses the Oakland A’s head toward a record for the American league that still stands today.

Producer and lead Brad Pitt is at his very best throughout: and that is a high standard for this talented actor whose looks are often used to underrate his ability. Miller rounds Beane out with flashbacks where we see that he was himself an all-round immensely gifted player at High School who, with an academic scholarship to Stanford in the bag followed his passion and the money into pro ball instead. There, he failed to realise his natural gifts and eventually drifted into scouting and then management.

There is very little live baseball shown in Moneyball but it uses real events surrounding real people to explore many of the deepest cultural values in American society: morality, sport, business, innovation, intuition vs science. Sorkin’s Billy Beane is a real, but ambiguous American hero: one whose most impressive achievement is more moral and private integrity than public acclaim and reward. A man finally tempted by the very system he has fought so hard against.  A ‘loser’ who ‘wins’ and in so doing permits Sorkin to pose the question of what in contemporary America is meant by lose and win.

See this. Sports fan or not. As ever with Sorkin – it will make you think.

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