Moneyball Hits One Out of the Park

There are three kinds of baseball movies: fantasies like Field of Dreams and The Natural, farces like Bull Durham and Major League, and tear-jerkers like Bang the Drum Slowly and The Pride of the Yankees. I’ve probably missed a few categories. For a complete list of every baseball movie ever made, visit the page maintained by the Boston Amateur Baseball Network.

The point I’m trying to make is that Moneyball should not work. It’s not a fantasy, a farce, or a tear-jerker. In fact, I don’t think it would fit in any category of baseball movie out there. It’s a baseball movie that doesn’t really show all that much baseball, which is really only the occasion for the movie’s true subject—statistics. Billy Beane, the central character, helped usher in the modern strategy of building a baseball team not with star players who can hit homers but with middle-of-the-road players who statistically have the best chance of getting on base.

Sports movies generally have at least one memorable monologue. Think of Kevin Costner’s great one in Bull Durham. Think of the eulogy for the lost players in Remember the Titans. And of course of Gary Cooper’s farewell speech in Pride of the Yankees. The closest Moneyball gets to such a speech is when Pitt addresses his team: “You don’t look like a winning team, but you are one. Now go out there and play like
one.” That’s it, the whole speech.

Add to this the problem that it’s a one-character movie. Yes, there are other characters if by “other characters” you mean actors in costume who interact to some degree with the main character.  But if by “character” you mean people who struggle and change over the course of the story, well, I’m not sure even the main character is a real character.

Brad Pitt, as real-life Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, is convinced through much of the movie that the statistical approach to building a team will work, and every other character, except for the young statistician he hires, believes otherwise. It takes a while for his strategy to prove to be correct, but he never loses faith. American movies are about struggle, about desire, about overcoming the odds. Without those things, there’s only waiting. But somehow Pitt makes waiting watchable.

Even the character’s daughter, played winningly by Kerris Dorsey, goes from loving her dad to, well, loving her dad. Nothing really shakes that relationship, though she worries for a fleeting moment that he might lose his job.

In other words, Moneyball  has none of the bells and whistles of a typical sports movie.

And what a relief.

It’s a low-key movie, a movie of long takes (by the standards of American movies), a
movie that takes the time to show a person thinking. In fact, that’s the primary action of the movie—thinking—Beane and his young statistician figuring out how to build the team, trying to convince others, and then putting the team together and crossing their fingers.

What makes Moneyball work is the acting. Brad Pitt, who’s always interesting to watch, has come into his own in this movie. He plays a man of confidence who’s not entirely sure of himself, a man who hears out his biggest detractor in the hope of persuading him to change his mind. Pitt is compelling. You can’t take your eyes off him. He moves through space like a boxer who’s seen more than his share of fights but who still loves the game.

Jonah Hill, as the young statistician, shows a side I never knew he had. His character is nuanced, tentative, a man with a secret passion who’s been unable to share it until the right person comes along who can appreciate it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the world-weary seen-it-all coach with just the right touch of been-there-done-that. I only wished we could see more of him. His character seems to drop out of sight toward the end of the movie.

The great Robin Wright plays Pitt’s ex-wife with just the right touch of leftover affection for her former husband. She makes a point of congratulating him at one point, not because she wants to get back together but because it’s the decent thing to do. But like Hoffman, she, too, is so good that we want to see more of her than the movie provides.

The secondary characters in the movie are more like backdrop. Nowhere is this more
vivid than in the use of the great icon of cantankerosity Jack McGee, who’s little more than a featured extra in the boardroom scenes. Of the eight or so actors in these scenes, none of the characters’ names matter. They share one attitude—that Beane’s idea will never work. They’re a Greek chorus of negativity instead of individual characters. And it’s a shame to see such talent wasted.

The same producers who made Moneyball made The Social Network¸ another movie about a subject that shouldn’t be as compelling as it is—the creation of a software
program—and another movie that wins us over largely because of its acting and
directing.

Before it was released, Moneyball hit a snag when its studio worried about, among other things, whether spending fifty million on a movie about statistics would win over audiences. According to Box Office Mojo, the movie’s take so far stands as thirty-eight million at only ten days out.

It’s not a movie that will carry you away on a wave of sentiment or make you laugh
your butt off, but it’s probably the best acted major studio movie that we’ve seen in a long time, and it proves screenwriter William Goldman’s immortal words about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

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Conspiracy Theorists

The Conspirator OnesheetNext, Redford, reverend sire, came footing slow, his mantle hoary and his bonnet sedge. Why must movies based on history be so reverent? They pace along in the footsteps of history so carefully it’s as if the actors are balancing books on their heads. And they are—the historical accounts of the events depicted. The first victim in such films is pacing. The story moves solemnly from point to point until the inevitable conclusion.

The first offering from Joe Ricketts’ American Film Company, The Conspirator is the story of Mary Surratt, convicted as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, the authorities couldn’t find the son, the true conspirator, so they settled for his mother. Was she an actual co-conspirator or only the owner of the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts (including Surratt’s son) met? The filmmakers clearly want to leave her guilt as an open question, but Robin Wright’s performance is at once so restrained and so heartfelt that it’s hard to think of her as guilty. She accepts her fate because she doesn’t want her son to die, and so she became the first woman executed in the United States.

The company’s noble aim is interesting and laudable: make movies about historical people and events that are ruthlessly accurate, accurate to the point of hiring historians to vet the scripts, to the point of having historians serve as on-set advisors. It’s refreshing after the hash Hollywood usually makes of history. For instance, you may not realize that during the revolution in Argentina, there was a lot less singing than in Evita.

The creative team has the right pedigree. Robert Redford is an able director who knows how to get out of the story’s and the actors’ way. And the cast is excellent: Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Danny Huston. The only soft spot in this apple is Justin Long, who’s great when he plays Justin Long, but who looks here as though he’s not capable of growing as much facial hair as the makeup department has given him and who delivers his lines with all the verve of the most talented student in the high school drama club.

But I don’t blame him. The script doesn’t give the actors enough to work with. The issue isn’t accuracy, it’s the quality of the writing. Some of the dialogue—especially in the extended courtroom scenes—is based on historical record, and it’s compelling to hear the voices of the past brought to life. But much of the rest was invented based on reasonable guesses about the characters’ experiences, motives, and feelings. It’s here where the script goes wrong. The characters make speeches instead of speaking. They don’t talk, they intone. At times, every line sounds like part of a closing argument. Stephen Root, who seems to be everywhere these days, brings the only real energy to the film. He plays John Lloyd, a witness who may or may not have been paid to give false testimony, careening from lie to lie and, when he’s called on it, reacting like a cornered dog.

The true star of this movie is the setting. Filmed in Savannah for Washington City, the movie has a look so authentic that you’d swear it was shot during the events it depicts. Gaslight flickers. Dusty sunlight pours through windows. The costumes are meticulous recreations not only of clothing from the period, but of the actual clothing worn by the principals. Mary Surratt’s dress, for instance, is modeled on the actual dress Surratt wore. Though the buildings may not be the originals (Surratt’s boarding house survives, but as a Chinese restaurant), they’re from the period and they lend more authenticity to the production than any backlot re-creation. I just wish they’d spent as much money on writers as they did on locations.

The advertising slogan for the movie is “One bullet killed the president. But not one man,” pointing to the larger conspiracy behind the assassination. For my money, it’s too tame and a bit confusing (did the bullet kill more than one man?). And it seems to indicate that Surratt was guilty. Here’s my suggestion, taken from a refrigerator magnet, which points more to the Surratt-as-scapegoat theme: “I didn’t say it was your fault. I said I was going to blame you.”
Dann