Confidence. Those who have it can move mountains because they’re blessed with never being fearful or shrunken by self-doubt. Those who don’t have it can reduce monumental skill and talent amidst crippling insecurity. Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, the real-life GM of the Oakland A’s who experienced a mythical rise in popularity by employing a little known strategy of sabermetrics – in short, get men on base – into a winning baseball team. Billy was a five-star athlete when he was young. He was offered a scholarship to Stanford, which he turned down in order to follow the money into the big leagues. He wound up fizzing into obscurity like so many highly touted athletes. The memory of his demise still haunts him, even within his incredible success as a GM.
The one thing Billy lacks is the one thing he so desperately holds dear: confidence. Beane can’t even bring himself to attend A’s games, so convinced that he is terrible luck. In fact, the one time he allows himself to show up to the stadium, his team begins to lose an 11-run lead. Beane is a walking contradiction. He’s a handsome man, with an athletic body, beautiful daughter and tons of charisma. Yet, Billy, outside of the baseball world, is always alone. Beane prefers to spend away games sitting in the empty stands, hidden in darkness, listening to the game on his transistor radio. In Billy Beane, Moneyball has created one of the most fleshed out characters movies will offer this year.
The cast is superb across the board. Brad Pitt’s worn handsomeness reflects Beane’s former boyish glory while maintaining his currently scarred state of being. Beane’s the kind of guy who can succeed in life just by existing. The success that so many would kill for, he obtains effortlessly. Thus, Beane’s penitence for not relating to others. Jonah Hill, as Beane’s doe-eyed special assistant Peter, finally breaks free from the doldrums of “fat sidekick” syndrome. As Beane states, “I’m 44…you’re 25.” These people couldn’t be more opposite. With Peter’s brains and Beane’s enthusiasm for risk, they are a recipe for success. In Peter, Billy sees a man who isn’t charismatic, handsome, or ignorantly confident, but someone who has the chops to get respect in the offices of important baseball executives. Beane immediately responds to this rare talent. Peter isn’t the kind of guy who’s convinced he’s great like Beane was when he was young. Peter has earned everything he has gained. That Peter gives Beane the confidence he needs to remember his roots and not flee for the big market clubs after the A’s success comes as no surprise.
Bennett Miller’s direction is again stellar, further proving him as a visionary talent. The performances are restrained, never allowed to go over the top in a type of film where that tendency is common. The pacing also keeps deliberate. Miller, as he did in Capote, lets the moments unfold slowly onscreen, avoiding force-feeding anything. The results feel a bit distancing but occasionally garner compelling returns. Scenes like when Beane’s daughter beautifully sings to him are moving in the most earnest way. On the contrary, I waited for a strong moment of revelation (like Clifton Collins’ profound monologue in Capote) but it never came. This may be the biggest disappointment of the whole picture. Beane always comes off as a lonely yuppie mostly concerned with “uptown problems.”
Wally Pfister’s cinematography is noteworthy. Images are often draped in golden dawn light and Pfister is never shy about shooting into deep shadows. I hope the photography in Moneyball gets some recognition since these images don’t inherently need to be this provocative. The typical approach would just be to shoot the script. Instead, using the medium to its fullest adds another layer. More mainstream films should make these kinds of choices.
As we’ve come to expect from Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, the script is smart, direct and mature, but, like always, it is also very cold. The blank spaces are filled by clever dialogue built for adults. This “arm’s length” approach works in films like The Social Network or Traffic because those stories are about hardened and procedural institutions. In those films, you check typical emotions at the door. Moneyball reduces baseball to its brass tacks number crunching. A baseball movie that may literally dislike the game of baseball. The approach is certainly interesting but gets old after a while. Unlike The Social Network, the direct style sinks under the weight of its own invention. By the final moments, Moneyball has so thoroughly pushed the viewer away that you may be checking your watch. That is unless you too hate baseball.
As a baseball fan, I think the concept of sabermetrics is a flawed thought process that involves a good bit of wishful thinking. I’m not a fan of reducing humans to numbers. It seems like a rabbit hole that doesn’t end well. Moneyball the movie, like the book, neglects to inform us that the A’s had the fortune of drafting three of the brightest young pitchers baseball had to offer – Mulder, Zito, Hudson. Any baseball fan knows that pitching wins and you’d be hard pressed to successfully argue the majority of the A’s wins didn’t come because of its lights out pitching. In addition, the insinuation that the Red Sox used sabermaterics alone to win its first championship is, frankly, bogus. They had a payroll far north of $100m, including big contracts for the likes of Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling and, of course, Johnny Damon. This said, I do not think it’s important for a true story to be totally. Fiction is liberal medium that leads with emotion, always printing the legend over the fact. Yet a film that’s conceived on the grounds of statistical inner-workings of popular sport, one also avoiding the exciting aspects of the game, seems ignorant for just making things up. The filmmakers clearly don’t know that much about the game. I suppose you may have your own opinions about this part of the movie. For me, it was an enormous distraction.
To use the metaphor everyone else is using, I’d say Moneyball hits a clean double. The kind of beautiful line drive that caroms around the corner and allows the runner to go into second base standing up. Buried in a brusk style, the film brings up very smart concepts, presented superlatively by its cast. Confidence comes in many shapes and sizes. The handsome guy isn’t always the one who can change the fate of the world. Sometimes it’s that quiet smart kid in the corner. Moneyball explores different ideas in a mature and challenging way. The filmmakers didn’t have it easy in making a sports movie that isn’t really about sports; at least not about glorifying sports. Sadly their efforts are thwarted by how disengaged the film may play to those who are actually sports fans. I suppose the film doesn’t want to engage our emotional response but only our most logical ones, just as sabermetrics does. If that’s the case then I’d argue they need to get their facts straight.