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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My View of Moneyball

(Moneyball of Wikipedia)
  I used to be a pretty big baseball fan.  TBS was on all the time whenever I wasn't working so I could see each and every Braves game that came through the cable wire.  This is hard to believe, since there are one hundred and sixty-two games in a season.  For those of you think Baseball is boring, I'll just say that if you get to know the players, learn the pitching game, and keep up with it nearly every day, it is really quite fascinating.
  But I quit watching years ago, mainly because I just had too little time to keep up with it all.  And if you don't, then it really is a bit boring.
  I do, however, like to watch a good movie now and then about baseball, because it is really a sport that can be full of drama, sacrifice, passion, and heartbreak.  Yes, there is triumph too, but there always seems to be so much more heartbreak.  Sounds a little like life, doesn't it?
  Recently, true-to-life baseball movies like The Perfect Game, and The Rookie have done a great job of showing how ballplayers can overcome incredible obstacles to become champions, or at least reach personal goals.  There is always a guaranteed emotional moment when tears well up in the toughest sports fan's eyes.  Music swells, the crowd cheers, and we know that even though it is just a game, this moment was special, and makes all the foolishness of sports worthwhile.
  Too many of these movies are far too contrived to ever achieve this.  Even if they do, one too many of them can dull your response to them.  So I try to avoid most of them.  They really become a bit too corny.
  When I saw the trailer for Moneyball,  I couldn't get too excited.  For one thing, while I think Brad Pitt is a talented actor, I'm a bit tired of Brad Pitt doing his Brad Pitt thing--the crazy, manic guy who slips in and out of being either nuts or charming.  Added to this was the implication (by title mostly) that this was a movie that was going to complain about the evil business of Major League Baseball.  Say what you will about the greedy owners, but I do not fall for the line that players should be pitied.  I work for a living, and it is tearing my body up to do so.  So does everyone else.  Ballplayers may have to deal with more injuries, but the fact of the matter is, they are being paid big bucks to play a game.  Hard to feel bad for them.  So I was prepared to pass on a professional-sports-are-evil type of movie.
  But for some oddball reason, I happened to record Moneyball on the DVR a few weeks ago and I put it on yesterday so I would have something to watch while I hit the treadmill.  I assumed it would be mildly entertaining.  If it wasn't, I had planned to switch it off and turn on The Viking Queen, which I'd also recorded, a 1960's Sword-and-Hairspray epic which, according to the poster, stars Don Murray and Carita, who apparently swings a sword and rides a chariot with very little...body armor.  Brad Pitt was going to have to work hard to keep Carita off the screen.
   As the movie opens, we learn that back in 2001, the Oakland A's just missed advancing in the playoffs in a very close best of five series.  In the aftermath of this, they lost their three star players, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen to larger, better funded ball clubs.  The set up for Brad Pitt here is that his character, Billy Beane, the General Manager for Oakland, must rebuild his team with a mere forty million dollars, while the Yankees and other ball clubs of their ilk are spending upwards of one hundred and ten million dollars a year, give or take a few million.
  Enter Jonah Hill, a Yale Economics graduate who has some peculiar ideas about how to scout and recruit baseball players.  Pitt, desperate to shake things up, climbs aboard Hill's Moneyball express, and the viewer gets to ride along this seemingly crazy train of computer-analysis-non-traditional team building experimentation.
  If you know the story, keep your mouth shut, and don't ruin it for those who either never saw what happened in real life, or have such poor memories that they don't remember how it turns out.  As plots go, this movie is fun to watch.  You'll think you see where it is all going, but you'll find a few twists that leave you surprised and pleased by the end.  Even if you don't like baseball, it's a good story, because it is not a baseball story.  It is a business story.  It is a story of friendship and commitment.  It is a story of believing in your plan and sticking with it to the end.
Pitt has firmly filled Redford's shoes both as
an actor as well as in appearance. 
  My fears about Brad Pitt were quickly laid to rest.  What really works here is Pitt's acting, since he is not just playing Billy Beane, a man intent on succeeding honestly in a crooked game, but Pitt is actually playing Billy Beane as portrayed by Robert Redford.  Think The Natural, and a few other great Redford roles like maybe his Bob Woodward role in All the President's Men, even throwing in a little of Johnny Hooker's naive earnestness from The Sting, and you'll get the idea.  I don't say this as a negative.  Pitt has said he idolizes Redford, and it shows.  He has surely studied him, you can see it in his facial expressions.  And the hair and makeup crew has studied Redford as well, going to great lengths to make Pitt look the Redford part.  The end result is a real treat.  Pitt pulls off the role with great aplomb, making what could be a dull character into a three-dimensional person about whom we end up caring a great deal.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman
  There is great chemistry between Pitt and Jonah Hill as well.  I know little of Hill, but know that he does mainly gross-out comedy schlock.  (I think.  Maybe I have him confused with another one of these younger guys, but that's my fault, I don't pay much attention to them these days.)  But in Moneyball, Hill shows off his acting chops with a reserved character who is smarter than everyone else in the room but is too shy (terrified really) to admit it.  His gradual growth in confidence and savvy is fun to watch.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman shows up to add a touch of dignity to what could have been a caricature role as the A's manager.  Hoffman always carried a smoldering fire that seems capable of erupting into rage, and he keeps this well controlled, allowing it to show just a little now and then, while at the same time, letting us know that he's really more a tired old man than an angry one.  Hoffman is capable of great passion and energy, but his understated disgruntled performance works perfectly against Pitt's eagerness to succeed.
  The screenplay is sharp enough that I thought I was watching real people, not actors reeling off canned lines.  (A favorite of mine is when Beane tells the team "I hate losing more than I want to win.  And there's a difference.")  The highlight of the dialog is a private conversation between Billy Beane and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (played by Arliss Howard, who shocked the heck out of me.  I was nearly convinced they had really snagged Henry to play himself.)  For fear of revealing too much, I can only say it is a real gift to be able to eavesdrop on this conversation.
  Far from vilifying Major League Baseball, Moneyball does a great job of depicting the game as a business, to be sure, but only that.  Not an evil business, not a sham or a travesty.  It is merely a game of professionals where certain things must happen to promote the success and welfare of your team.  And this business is worthwhile in the end because, as Billy Beane says, "it is hard not to be romantic about Baseball."
  I have to agree.  After the many seasons of watching kids at the local park play recreation league baseball, it is hard not to get caught up in the romance of the game, no matter what is going on off the field.  And that's what makes Moneyball hold together as a film.  In the midst of showing us the business of baseball, director Bennett Miller reminds us that it is still a game worth watching, a game worth playing, and a game worth teaching our children.

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