So, I went and saw Moneyball last night. Overall, I’m not sure that it quite lives up to its billing as this year’s Social Network, as it lacks the immediacy of that movie. Moneyball is, however, a very well-acted, written, and directed sports film in which the tension and excitement is drawn more from the dialogue and ideas it explores than from the games themselves.
The Cast: Brad Pitt should secure at least an Oscar nom for his portrayal of Beane. A lot has been said about this portrayal already, so I’ll just be brief--Pitt’s always been great at portraying intense, physical characters with a great deal of internal conflict, and Beane falls right into his wheelhouse. He uses his own charisma and fading athleticism to portray Beane as an alpha male who is still struggling to process what he sees as the defining event of his life—his own failure as a player. Jonah Hill should also be praised for his understated turn as the composite character Peter Brand. Hill has great comic timing and, in what was a huge surprise for me, has fantastic chemistry with Pitt. Philip Seymour Hoffman is good in portraying a fairly one-dimensional Art Howe. Chris Pratt gives a legitimately touching turn as Scott Hatteberg, and I wish we could have spent more time with his story.
The Script: Definitely can feel the Sorkin touch on this one. Highlights are any of Beane’s conversations with the perpetually nervous but intellectually precise Brand, and the encounter between Beane and his ex-wife and her decidedly non-alpha male new husband.
The Cinematography: Beautifully shot, both in and outside of ballparks. Just nice to look at.
Art Howe: I just wanted to learn more about this character. Hoffman is a great actor, and I felt like Howe’s position was underserved by basically making him out to be a one-dimensional douchebag/mercenary.
The Focus: Sometimes the film can feel a bit unfocused—movie Jeremy Giambi is funny, but I didn’t understand why we spent so much time around him as a player as opposed to, say, developing the Hatteberg subplot more.
I really didn’t “get” Moneyball until a scene near the end of the movie, when Beane is driving alone through an empty expanse of California industrial wasteland. I thought that the movie would really share its central theme with the book, which was really about how the hostility of the “old guard” towards innovation or technological progress. This is a theme of Moneyball the movie, too, but it takes a backseat to what really ties the film together: The idea that humans are in this endless quest to impose meaning—whether it’s personal, moral, political, whatever—on a world driven by cold, hard scientific principles and a great deal of randomness. This theme is a constant thread throughout the movie—one whose protagonist asks “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” not long after he advances the position that a computer can probably build a better baseball team than a human could. And when the A’s roll off their record-breaking 20-win streak, the movie provides us several competing narratives of the event—is it, as the game announcers proclaim, attributable to the “calming influence” of Art Howe on his ragtag bunch of underdogs? (OK, not likely.) Is it the triumph of objective reason over superstition? How much of it is luck?
This theme is nowhere more evident than in the Beane character himself. To the movie Beane, his failure as a player is more than just a lesson in scouts’ fallacy and an impetus to prove them wrong. His attempts to extract meaning from his own failure are the central struggle in the film. Anyone who has experienced failure on any kind of scale—personal, professional, whatever—can relate to Beane’s drive. We always frame failure in our own lives as a learning experience or an obstacle to overcome—failure is painful, but also productive. Is this always true? No. But the truth of true failure is too psychologically painful for us to swallow. We look for meaning in our failure as a survival mechanism, as does Beane. Ultimately, this is the struggle that drives the film, and elevates it beyond the level of typical fall-movie-season Oscar bait.