Saturday, June 23, 2012

Moneyball


"How can you not get romantic about baseball?"
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) wonders this several times throughout the film. To a large extent, it's a fair question, although baseball and sports in general may not be every filmgoer's cup of tea. What is romantic, irrefutably so, is the experience director Bennett Miller has given us, which in the end is only partially about baseball. If you've ever struggled with a confidence problem or simply wanted your actions to mean something, this is your film, America.
Beane is a former major league ball player-turned general manager for the Oakland Athletics whose budget is unreasonably tight. Forced to acquire new, inexpensive players to fill in for those the team lost to free agency, Beane radically employs a young analyst with a degree in economics (Jonah Hill) as his assistant and together, the two pull together a team that focuses heavily on the players' on-base percentage (OBP) and other unique statistics in order to gain runs and eventually win games. Virtually no one in the franchise supports Beane's decision, and one loss after another seems to shoot down the credibility of his plan----until it actually starts working.


This film, like many other Best Picture Nominees before it, is about the underdog and taking chances, but it's very much a story about trust, too. A fine example of this (and unarguably one of the film's greatest scenes) happens at Beane's meeting in Cleveland to arrange player trades where Peter Brand (Hill) is introduced. When an entire row of personnel agrees to a certain trade, Brand leans in quietly and briefly gives his disapproval; the manager doesn't ask a single question but immediately seconds Brand's veto. Beane immediately catches on and seeks Brand out moments later, "What just happened in there? Why does he listen to you?" Brand's ideas are unpopular and extreme, as Beane soon finds out, but somehow there becomes a trust between the two men as they put the formulas into action. When dissent starts flowing freely through the team clubhouse, coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks Brand if he agrees with Beane's decisions; "One hundred percent," he replies. 


Another inspired scene has Beane explaining to Brand the correct way to cut a player; Brand feels he should relay at least some level of sympathy but Beane disagrees, admitting he doesn't mix with the players, travel with them, or engage in unnecessary dialogues. Later, as the team's standing in the league become dire after a significant losing streak, Beane revises his social philosophy slightly and works together with Brand and his players in order to explain what they're doing and to build confidence (which coincidentally is when the team begins what would become a twenty-game winning streak). Once the team gets going, they go damned near all the way.
Narrative aside, this film boasts the most solid production of any this year. The two principal actors, forgive the pun, obviously brought their A-game to the filming, but the driving orchestral accompaniment, so invaluable to desperate, life-changing situations such as these, and the editing choices of classic baseball clips and pages on end of statistics really come together with the present to entice and entertain us, while using close up shots of Beane's reactions, mostly his eyes, to remind us just how much heart and dedication this story has on a human level.
Early on, an announcer scoffing at Beane's system says, "It's not about statistics, it's a game about people." What may have threatened the old boy network was the fact that money just may not have been the most important factor in someone's success.
Radical.

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