Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2011 10:29 am 
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Levels of the game

It's a tricky proposition to try to build up a drama out of statistics, even when that drama centers on big league baseball. But Bennett Milller gets away with it, thanks to Aaron Sorkin and Stephen Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay, and Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, who play the leading roles with help from Philip Seymour Hoffman as A's coach Art Howe and a whole team of other players. Moneyball dramatizes the book by Michael Lewis about how General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) of the poorly funded team the Oakland Athletics hired on Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a 25-year-old Yale economics graduate who'd never had another job, and began to follow Brand's "scientific" system using performance statistics to get superior results without the kind of big bucks the Yankees or the White Sox had to buy star players. This isn't so much a story about the details of play as about thinking outside the box, winning by throwing out the old rules in favor of more quantifiable ones. This is a movie that easily appeals to non-baseball fans. In fact it may disappoint traditional fans, just as Billy Beane disappoints his roomful of aged baseball scouts when he stops listening to their antiquated advice and switches to Peter Brand's. There's more conversation than game time here. But with Sorkin (of The West Wing and The Social Network) putting the finishing touches on it, the talk has enough zing to keep you riveted. Zaillian and Sorkin deliver a crystal clear script and the story tells itself without sports movie cliches. Moneyball carries off something nice here, and Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill's assured performances will be remembered when awards time comes. A more radical, documentary-style version of the book by Steven Soderbergh didn't get made, but this film has documentary elements, and though it may not put all its focus on the big game, it fills in plenty of A's and league history along the way.

As the action begins something drastic needs to be done when the season approaches after Oakland has lost to the Yankees in the 2001 playoffs and three of the A's top players (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen) have been lost to higher paying contracts from richer clubs. While involved with a trade as he tries to put a new team together, Beane notices that a nod from a young man tips off a key decision by another team manager. He goes to that young man, find out abut his new stats-based approach, and hires him back to Oakland. Thus the alliance begins -- along with the incomprehension of the recruiting oldtimers, who go by things like charismatic personality, whether a player has a pretty girlfriend and their instinctive and unquestioned sense, established over decades, of what makes good baseball. Nerdy young Pete Brand has no interest in that. He finds that things like a bad pitching arm, age, or misbehavior off the field distract team bosses from appreciating that certain inexpensive players may actually score better than the big names -- and therefore be within the A's limited budget, which team owner Mark Shapiro (Reed Diamond) refuses to raise.

You might need to watch this movie many times the way coaches (and Brand) watch films of play to see all that's going on. Clearly after a while Billy begins to do other things besides rely on Brand's stats-based player recommendations, trading players like chips on a board game, not hesitating to trade or dump a player who has ceased to perform, and teaching Pete how to tell players they're been traded (they take it very cooly). At first the "thing" doesn't work. And then it does, and the A's win an unprecedented 20 games in a row. The movie doesn't focus much on individual games. Even for the key one, it focuses on Billy, who is driving to see their farm team the Oaks in Visalia during much of the game, till his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) tells him to turn around or he'll put a jinx on things.

Pete doesn't seem to care much about baseball -- or does he? It's he who follows the games, and Billy gets him to text him the plays while he nervously works out at home. One of the beauties of this movie is that the power of baseball as the all-American sport hovers over every scene, but it shows how much money matters, and how significantly other levels of control and management affect the outcomes of major league play. While "moneyball" eventually spread to other teams, the intangible aspects are clearly shown to remain key elements. This movie gives us a sense of complexity.

The beauty of Pitt's performance is how casually he slouches through it, munching on snacks -- it's a nervous gesture, but also an ostensibly folksy one. The big star has wrinkles now, and needs a haircut. He wears his role of athlete gone to seed with perfect ease. As the tarnished golden boy who's still got the will to win, he delivers an un-vain, lived-in performance worthy of the years he waited to get this movie made. (This and Tree of Life make this perhaps Pitt's best acting year yet.) Hill, familiar only through boisterous Apatow comedies, may seem an odd piece of casting. But he's surprisingly believable and nicely underplayed as the stats nerd who's both daunted and confident in his newfound position of authority (as the actor himself was playing in a real drama with a big star). How much the other higher ups and oldtimers resent the young Yalie and this whole new approach isn't overplayed either. In fact a shaveed, paunchy Philip Seymour Hoffman as the coach has his moments of surliness but keeps his performance so buttoned-down you'd hardly know him. It's almost as if he's compensating for his histrionic turn as the star of Bennett Miller's first feature, Capote.

Moneyball doesn't thrill you with the usual final, sports drama end-of-the-ninth heartstopper. Its focus is not at the level of individual game play but at the level of winning games over a season through forming a team. Billy Beane, a player himself (though a failed one, as flashbacks tell) looks away from players to results, and isn't even really very interested in games, except for the last one of the season: if you don't win that one, nothing else matters. Moneyball sends you out of the theater pondering, which from as mainstream a movie as this, is a very good thing.

Moneyball''s release dates are 23 September 2011 for the US, 25 November for the UK.

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