Sunday, September 25, 2011

A VORP of 16.3: Moneyball

“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane says more than once in Moneyball. Truer words have never been spoken. Sports thrive on sentimental idealizations – unconscious efforts to tie what happens on the field to our values off it. We want our sports heroes to look like the Greek gods we make them out to be. Even more, we want them to be good people. We want losers to be jerks receiving their comeuppance. We want to believe that victorious teams have chemistry and camaraderie, and that they win because they want it more and work harder for it. Beyond all of that, many of us want to believe that we matter, that the team couldn’t do it without our support, and that the position in which we sit as we watch the game, or whether we watch it at all, affects the balance of the force that decides the outcomes of the games. Moneyball opens with a shot of Beane sitting in Oakland’s dark and empty stadium listening to his team take on the New York Yankees in a postseason game 3,000 miles away. Beane flips on the transistor radio sitting on his knee to get an audio glimpse of what’s happening. Then he flips it off. Then he flips the radio on again. Then he flips it off. Oakland’s season has come down to this moment of this game and yet Beane avoids listening – not so much because he can’t bear the stress of elimination but because he’s fearful that his listening might somehow hurt his team’s chances of coming through in the clutch.

Moneyball is about the effort to demythicize baseball, to see it for what it really is. Based on the tremendous (if imperfect) book by Michael Lewis, it tells the tale of Beane’s efforts to keep Oakland and its subterranean payroll competitive against the likes of New York and its money-printing machine. Beane realizes that for as long as the A’s try to beat the Yankees by playing their game – acquiring the consensus premier talent that fetches baseball’s highest salaries – it will forever be playing from behind. In order to close the gap, Beane and the A’s must redefine what talent looks like, starting by accepting that the naked eye is an imperfect judge of talent. Beane’s idea is to embrace the philosophies of Bill James and assess talent through the stat sheet and, just as important, let a computer determine which stats are worth paying attention to. This all seems fairly logical when read on the page, but when put into practice Beane receives everything from puzzled looks to hostile objections from baseball’s romanticists. In their eyes, Beane is suggesting the A’s should pick whom to date based on a computer algorithm, with aesthetic beauty and chemistry thrown out the window. In their eyes, Beane is shitting on romance.

Adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, Moneyball does a commendable job of conveying the magnitude of this culture shift. Early scenes show Beane sitting with Oakland’s grizzled scouts, men whose careers are based on the belief that they can spot talent better than the skilled guy next to them, and much better than the proverbial kid on a computer in his mother’s basement. As different players are tossed out for discussion, the scouts provide input on the player’s swing, his looks and even the looks of his girlfriend (the idea of the latter being that if a stud athlete doesn’t have a smoking hot girlfriend, he must have self-esteem issues). Sorkin and Zaillian may be exaggerating a bit there, but the genius of the scene is the moment when Beane points out that one of the stud hitting prospects has a mediocre batting average. “If he’s such a good hitter,” Beane says, “why isn’t he hitting?” The scouts suggest the player needs more time to prove his talent, but Beane doesn’t buy it. In these scouts, Beane sees the confused girlfriend who thinks that getting married will fix the intimacy problems she has with her boyfriend. They aren’t evaluating, they’re dreaming. And when they look at the list of available prospects and debate who to bring in to replace their departed talent, Beane sees the suddenly single 50-year-old male who assumes that his next relationship will start with a 25-year-old woman, because that’s the way his last relationship began. It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.

Funny then that this is a baseball movie that could benefit from some romance – not the Crash Davis-Annie Savoy variety, but the other kind found in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams or The Natural, those three baseball classics. Moneyball is lacking a convincing love of the game, not for lack of effort but lack of execution. The flashbacks to Beane’s own playing career exemplify the imperfection of “can’t miss” scouting reports, which explains why Beane would be so willing to rethink Oakland’s philosophy for talent acquisition, but the film’s attempt to portray Beane as a baseball lifer desperate to feel the game’s glory falls flat, no matter how many times Beane articulates his desires. Played by Brad Pitt, Beane is one of the least charismatic lead characters in a film that isn’t intentionally defined by the main character’s lack of charisma (see: The Man Who Wasn’t There). He smiles, he spits tobacco, he squints his eyes, but he has no personality. Jonah Hill fares much better as Peter Brand, the Yale graduate and stats geek who uses various algorithms to slice through baseball’s conventional wisdom with the precision of a surgeon. Short, stout and lacking the swagger of a former professional athlete, Peter is the perfect contrast to Beane and a personification of the change he brings to the A’s organization.

Sorkin projects are often recognized by their wit and the gracefulness with which complex subjects are hewn into easily understood morality plays, but most characteristically they are recognized by their hyperactive hypertalkiness. Moneyball, surprisingly enough, has none of that. It’s a wordy picture, to be sure, but it unfolds with the deliberateness of a man chopping wood, not the machinegun rat-a-tat-tat of Sorkin’s The West Wing or The Social Network. Bennett Miller, directing his first film since 2005’s Capote, stages the scenes simply – lots of shot/reverse-shot – as if expecting the dialogue to sing like in a Bette Davis movie. It doesn’t. There’s a scene in which Beane tears into the A’s for having a festive atmosphere in the locker room following a loss: he slams the stereo with a baseball bat and then knocks over a big plastic water jug. In the stillness of the team’s stunned reaction, a displaced plastic plate can be heard spinning and wobbling to the floor in the background. “That’s what losing sounds like,” Beane says, and alas that’s what this film often sounds like. Its silences have an empty echo.

None of this is to imply that the film isn’t sometimes wonderfully alive. (Spoiler warning, unless you’re familiar with baseball history or sports movie conventions, in which case never mind.) When the A’s are in the midst of their record-setting 20-game winning streak those empty echoes are displaced by reverberations of excitement and joy. But notice how they’re achieved: mostly by inserting archival footage from the real games. Unmentioned in the movie, because it’s really beside the point, is that the “moneyball” era of baseball began in what was also the height of the steroid era, and fittingly enough these clips from actual games are artificial performance enhancers. What’s winning us over isn’t the writing, acting or directing, it’s the thrill of baseball itself. The slight exception is when Miller recreates that 20th win, deftly connecting the historical footage with the Pitt-led backstage drama. It’s one of the few times that Miller stages on-field action, but it’s skillfully accomplished, in large part because the guys playing the A’s look like real baseball players (and, sure enough, some of them used to be).

Critics of Lewis’ book will likely be disappointed, though not surprised, to see that the movie is faithful to the source material’s problematic portrayal of the 2002 A’s. Sure enough, Sorkin and Zaillian offer no mention of the team’s outstanding starting pitching (headlined by Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder) or its cast of budding stars (including Miguel Tejada and Ray Durham), each of whom made bigger impacts than Justice, Bradford or Scott Hatteberg, and each of whom were with the team not because they’d been discovered by some revolutionary formula but because they, like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon before them, simply hadn’t reached their first big paydays yet. But as historically misleading as these omissions might be, they’re dramatically irrelevant. In the bigger picture, the impact of the “moneyball” A’s was actually even greater than what the film describes, influencing teams to value on-base percentage over batting average, to ignore runs batted in, to put the red light on average base-stealers (a move that changed with the “end” of the steroid era), and so on. Thus, I don’t object to the way Moneyball is faithful to the book but to the theme-altering way it departs from it.

Although Beane is the jock-genius of both the movie and the book, the printed version of Moneyball isn’t a character analysis at all. It isn’t about inner demons, hatred of losing, fear of failure, or a cute daughter who can sing and play the guitar. Lewis’ book is about baseball. No, more specific than that: it’s about the science of baseball. The insertion of Beane’s personal life into the movie is Sorkin and Zaillian’s attempt to keep the film relatable to the nonsports fan, to humanize the story and give it a familiar dramatic arc. It works, I suppose, but it creates a bitter irony. This movie about a man daring to challenge deeply engrained conventions is itself utterly conventional. To make a movie about Moneyball in its own image would have required a willingness to forget what a sports movie is supposed to look like. It would have required breaking the mold. Moneyball is more than adequate, but to be great, to contend with the best of the best, it needed to dare to be different.

Addendum: Confused by the title of this review? Sorry, I couldn’t resist getting baseball stats geeky. “VORP” is the acronym for Value Over Replacement Player. Remember the scene in the movie when Jonah Hill’s character says that what they’re looking for is a certain number of wins, which will take a certain number of runs, etc. VORP is a tool that combines all the stats a player will contribute and puts a numerical value to them that is compared to the average (or “replacement”) player. A great player, then, would have a VORP in the 80s. A just better than average player would have a VORP around 16. Hence the title.


Richard Bellamy said...

Sometimes, when it comes to movies, it enhances your viewing experience if you haven't read the book! I had that advantage with Moneyball. According to you, the film's biggest failing is how it translates the book's driving theme. Even if I HAVE read the book, I try, try, try to see the movie as a separate entity. But I understand. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn't.

I agree with you about the baseball classics. The Natural romanticizes baseball ten times more than Moneyball. I prefer the former, but I enjoyed the latter from start to finish, and in a packed theater full of guys who were clearly baseball fans (easy to spot in Massachusetts!), including some members of the Cape Cod baseball leagues, I was the only one laughing out loud at some of Jonah Hill's meaningful silences and/or retorts, which required at least a modicum of emotional attachment to the game, even though I am a non-fan totally clueless of whether or not the Red Sox are having a good or bad season right now.

Uh, what was the point of that anecdote? Well, in your defense, maybe those fans and players (who got all frothy and chuckly when Beane had lunch with the owner of the Sox at Fenway - by the way, I've been in that room) felt like you about the movie. Meanwhile, I just thought it was a very solid, enjoyable movie.

jake said...

Jason, as usual your posts ignite further interest to see the film being described (The Beaver notwithstanding), thanks so much for such clear, honest writing.

Loved the "Drive" post as well, and agreed with you whole-heartedly throughout your review.

Can't wait to see what you have to say about "A Dangerous Method." I'm going back on a Cronenberg bender right now.

Anyhow, thanks again.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sometimes, when it comes to movies, it enhances your viewing experience if you haven't read the book! ... According to you, the film's biggest failing is how it translates the book's driving theme.

If that's the impression that's left, it wasn't intended, alas. I really consider books and the movies that come from them separate things. I enjoyed the book, but I didn't see it as a natural to become a movie and when I first saw the trailer for Moneyball I thought it looked terrible. So I went in with low expectations.

No, I think the biggest failing is that Pitt's character isn't interesting and the stuff with his family isn't convincingly tied to the rest of it. Now, granted, maybe that's easy for me to see because I read the book. But it's a cause/effect I wasn't positive about until I was looking back and trying to figure out what didn't work. What was obvious as it was unfolding was that I found the dialogue flat, and that's obviously something that wasn't going to come from the book at all.

Now, having said all of that, for a non-baseball fan (someone who doesn't follow the game), there's a novelty to this story that I couldn't experience. You don't have to have read Michael Lewis' book to know about "moneyball" and its effect on the game, kind of the same why a movie fan wouldn't need to have seen Avatar to know that there's a 3-D craze going on at the cinema. So for you there was a lot of newness, and for me the opportunity for newness was in the characters that I didn't find fulfilling. So there is that.

As for the addendum: See the title of my review. I'm explaining what it means... in short, that Moneyball is just better than average.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: Thank you very much! Although this would be more appropriately left at your site (and it will be eventually), I had to pick my jaw up off the floor while reading your Dumbo review on the way back from seeing Moneyball. You did such a wonderful job of weaving in analysis, pure emotional response and Disney history, much of which I didn't know.

Craig said...

Just got home from seeing this. You know more about sports than me, Jason, and you've read the book, so a couple of questions:

1. Didn't the movie seem a little unfair to Art Howe? I was struck by the montage with Beane and Brand working on the players' technique, with Howe nowhere to be found in the locker room. I can understand if, in reality, he was pissed off about his contract, but I really doubt that would have extended to the degree that he'd have excused himself entirely from the proceedings. (The comment from the announcer complimenting his management came across as a cheap shot. Surely there was some truth to it?)

2. A more technical question. The movie (and, one presumes, the book) suggests that Beane and Brand were the first to ever use a computer to build a team. I seem to recall a slew of articles back in the early 90s focusing on Tony LaRussa doing the very same thing. For the A's. What's different about the Beane/Brand approach compared to LaRussa's?

Sam Juliano said...

I agree that this is not a GREAT film, but it's solid as you seem to summarize at the end of this typically-perceptive and exceedingly well-written essay. I went with 4 of 5 star rating. What I liked was the homorous chemistry between Pitt and Hill, the sharp writing which seems to capture what I would envision behind-the-scenes and some nice visual mixing during the 20 game winning streak presentation. I completely agree that this book and film was an attempt to de-mythicize baseball, and at times I thought the repudiation of some of baseball's more infamous tactics weren't acidic enough. Pitt's mysterious character was rather fascinating, and I rather liked the attempt at bringing in the daughter, at least for some human perspective, even if the attempt wasn't wholly revelatory.

The film doesn't approach those three great baseball classics you mention, FIELD OF DREAMS, BULL DURHAM and THE NATURAL,. though I understand each is shooting for something different.

In the work-in-progress print I saw back in November, near the end Hill's character was set to accept a general manager's position elsewhere. This was cut from the final print, a decision I agree with for various reasons.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Good questions.

1) Didn't the movie seem a little unfair to Art Howe?

Very. First of all, what Howe says in the movie is correct. In general, sports franchises succeed when general managers bring in the talent and then let the coaches/managers coach. That Beane tried to meddle in that doesn't actually speak all that well to him. Of course, that's not the way it's portrayed, which is fine. The really unfair moment, though, is when Hill's character objects to the very notion that Howe had something to do with anything. A lot of people debate just how much effect a manager does have (any manager), but I thought it was a somewhat typical Sorkin oversimplification to create a villain in Howe, although I do believe Howe and Beane weren't fond of one another.

2) What's different about the Beane/Brand approach compared to LaRussa's?

Many of the basic ideas about statistical analysis (which stats were most important) had been brewing for decades. And certainly teams used computers for analysis. To some degree, Beane is famous for being first because he's the guy who let the author write a book about him. And Lewis ignored the star players on that A's team to make Beane look like a small market miracle worker. (Not to take credit away entirely: because it's amazing the A's were that competitive.)

But, there were differences. Beane went all-in with the idea, and Moneyball was the catalyst for an almost universal understanding among baseball fans that all you want from your batters is to avoid an out. Thus a walk is as good as a single. And thus a strikeout isn't any worse than a flyout (out is out). There's an update on the Moneyball era in last week's Sports Illustrated and it includes a pull quote from Joe Morgan blasting Moneyball in the aftermath of its publication on the grounds that Lewis didn't play baseball. That right there is evidence that, as logical as these ideas seem now, they were pretty radical when put in print. So Beane's A's took these ideas to the next level.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: In the work-in-progress print I saw back in November, near the end Hill's character was set to accept a general manager's position elsewhere. This was cut from the final print, a decision I agree with for various reasons.

Interesting. Hill's character is based on a real person (different name) who did indeed go on to be the GM of the Dodgers. So that's probably what they were portraying. I'm not sure that's really essential to the story they're telling here, although it would show the degree to which "moneyball" became excepted philosophy.

I'm not as fond of this film as you are, Sam, but, again, it certainly has strengths.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I haven't seen the film yet, but I love nerdy baseball stuff, so I can't wait for this. I haven't read your review, either, Jason, but I'm struck by this comment in the comments section:

A lot of people debate just how much effect a manager does have (any manager), but I thought it was a somewhat typical Sorkin oversimplification to create a villain in Howe, although I do believe Howe and Beane weren't fond of one another.

You're absolutely right. Sorkin does have a tendency to do that (it's why I'm glad John Welles was running the final season of West Wing because Sorkin's handling of Alan Alda's character would have been all wrong), but I have zero doubts that Howe and Beane hated each other. Old school baseball types cannot stand anyone who thinks outside of the box -- and then when their "time-tested" ways are challenged, they sound like a pissy little boy. This is how Morgan comes off in his comment. It's akin to something a "professional" sports writer would say about a blogger (throwing around the "mom's basement" to boot) who hasn't gone through journalism school.

It's why I'm so excited for this movie...I'm interested in the way it views baseball through the lens of the major paradigm shift that occurred thanks to Beane. And I have no doubt that the challenge Beane presented to people so in fear of change -- a change to something that seemingly worked for decades upon decades -- caused these same people to hate this man that was taking their beloved pastime off the field and shifting the focus to the front office.

It's only been in the last couple of years that writers are getting on board with this notion that simple stat-based analysis (like ERA and Batting Average) and classical scout analysis ("gut" feelings about "toolsy" players) don't cut it anymore when evaluating how good/valuable a player actually is. Zach Greinke and Felix Hernandez are perfect examples of this as recent Cy Young winners where the writers, thankfully, stopped paying attention to win/loss record and payed attention to how dominant the pitchers were.

I could go on all day about teams are looking at things like WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and UZR now to determine the actual value of a player. It's fascinating. It's why teams like Tampa Bay have been able to build a legit competitor through the draft.

What does this have to do with Moneyball the movie? I don't know. I haven't seen it yet. I just couldn't help but not talk about sabremetrics and the like.

Everyone can now point to me and yell, "NERD!"

Jason Bellamy said...

Everyone can now point to me and yell, "NERD!"

Kevin: I put "VORP" in the headline. There's a whole lotta nerd going on here.

It's only been in the last couple of years that writers are getting on board with this notion that simple stat-based analysis (like ERA and Batting Average) ...

Very true. And there's still a long way to go. When a player comes to the plate on TV, typically we still see his average, homers and RBIs. And what the stats geeks know is that OBP means a lot more than AVG and OPS means a hell of a lot more than RBIs.

Living just over the Potomac from Washington, DC, I watch a lot of Nationals games on TV and their play-by-play announcer is annoyingly old-school. Well, actually he's annoying in a lot of ways. But the thing that drives me insane is his, how should I say this, massive boner for RBIs.

It's become almost universally accepted that RBIs are misleading statistics because they require another player to get on base in front of you, meaning your effectiveness in that category is based on your spot in the order and the success of your teammates. Yet still the Nats announcer mentions a batter's RBI total after every run batted in. I'm not shitting you. It's not just milestones. It's, "And that's the 14th RBI of the season for Wil Nieves," that kind of thing. And this is all the more ridiculous given that we just saw how many RBIs the guy had when he stepped to the plate, and most of us have the Internet on our lap by some means or another and can look it up at any point if we're craving to know it, which we aren't, which is the point.

True story: A few seasons ago, in the Nats' second game of the year, a player, I think it was Austin Kearns, knocked in a run. The play-by-play guy then gushed, "And Austin Kearns becomes the Nats' RBI leader with 3."


Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, Kevin ... If you don't write it up for your blog, be sure to come back here and share what you thought about Moneyball.

Kevin J. Olson said...

It's also why Beane was able to avoid albatross contracts for overpayed, "big bats." The RBI thing is funny because you'll always get people clamoring for to overpay for a Adam Dunn or Raul Ibanez player (or, to go oback to a dark, dark time as a Mariner fan...Richie Sexson) when you can go and pick up a million Jack Cust types for free; guys who can get on base a ton.

Speaking of the Mariners, it reminds me of the unfair wrap Adrian Beltre -- my favorite M of recent years -- got when he was our third baseman. Coming off of his monster year for the Dodgers, everyone expected him to hit for those kind of numbers in Safeco. When he didn't (which was predictable since he's a pull hitter), everyone freaked and called him a bust; a guy who wasn't worth his contract. What many failed to see was that for his contract -- which was quite the value -- his value defensively was more than worth it. Sure he wasn't a monster hitter like he was in LA, but he regressed to his mean and had more than a plus glove that prevented a lot of runs.

Anyway...I'll let you re-direct this back to the movie. Sorry for the mini hijack. I'm going to try and go see it sometime this next month.

Troy Olson said...

I haven't seen this either, but really enjoyed the book, warts and all. Your review still makes me interested, but I worry that I'll end up frustrated by the simplified characterizations that Sorkin's script appears to use, like how he apparently paints Howe (though I remember being very anti-Howe around that time due to his comments, time has softened my stance on that).

I guess I should hold off on commenting more since I haven't seen the film, but I am curious -- is the big ending that 20-game winning streak? Do they use that to prove Beane's genius? That just seems like an odd finale as it doesn't really lead to anything. Sure, it's not as cinematic, but Beane's real legacy isn't the wins he got his team (the A's seemed to run into a brickwall each post-season leading to him using the now famous line that his "shit just doesn't work in the playoffs") but that a) he showed a valid way to keep a small market team alive and viable and b) probably more important is he began a lineage of sabremetric minded GM's being placed around the league (most notably Theo Epstein, who has combined stats with craploads of money to create a perennial power).

I realize that's the kind of nuance that isn't going to be able to be in a film like this, but it's how I'll inevitably approach the material and likely why I'll be a bit too nitpicky in the end.

Oh, and as to your comments with Kevin on announcers, they will likely be the last ones to "convert". Front office types will convert when they see that adhering to some of these tenets can garner them job security, and sportwriters now have enough of a blog influence that some of the younger more stat-minded guys are breaking through into the mainstream. Yet announcers stay around forever and are typically replaced by either other older guys with old-time baseball minds (or so it seems to be the case with the Seattle broadcasters) or by ex-players, typically of the "gritty, not afraid to get dirt on their uniforms aka white" variety who typically espouse the same qualities that they held when they played.

Jason Bellamy said...

Kevin: Well, as the fantasy owner of Beltre in his amazing (PED) season with the Dodgers, I can understand why Mariners fans were miffed not to get more out of him. He came to the Mariners seemingly on the way up. Still, your larger point is true. (As for Dunn: He's actually a bad example. Yes, this year he became the second player in MLB history to have a total K number that was higher than his batting average. But previous to this year, he was a huge OBP guy in addition to the power. People always noticed the homers and the strikeouts, but the dude used to walk a lot. Used to. Amazing how the bottom just fell out for him.)

Jason Bellamy said... the big ending that 20-game winning streak? Do they use that to prove Beane's genius?

Troy: I'd put it this way ... the 20-game streak is the film's on-field visual evidence of Beane's genius. The film doesn't limit Beane's effect to that. But I suppose it was unlikely for a sports movie to be made without a big sports triumph. 'Changing the game' just isn't cinematic.

P.S. You running the PDX this coming weekend? (It's this weekend, right?) Gotta buddy running in it. If so, good luck!

Troy Olson said...

Yeah, I thought Adam Dunn was one of the stat guys pet projects as he was cast as a "bad" player by the mainstream media due to his high K rate, yet to the stat minded folks he was the epitome of the "three true outcomes" kind of player.

Also, I sadly am not running the Portland Marathon. Two years with a kid, two years not marathoning...I'm setting a goal to get run in it next year as I kind of miss it (though I still have to find a way to make the time to train for it).

Kevin J. Olson said...

Huh. I wonder why I thought Dunn was a lot worse than he actually was. So he is exactly like the Jack Cust example I gave. Woops.

Luxembourg said...

The scene in Beane's office the last day before the trade deadline was worth the price of admission. But it otherwise dragged and you always felt you were watching a Hollywood version of he story. The fact that he was unsuccessful in the long run made the ending anti-climatic, but that's what happened. Has anybody noticed that any part Brad Pitt plays could have been done exactly the same by Robert Redford thirty years earlier or is it just me?

Joel Bocko said...

Just saw this film last night. I don't know jack about baseball, especially stats, so I was more interested in the social/aesthetic phenomena the movie represented. I recognized Miller's name, but couldn't remember what he directed - seeing it was Capote, I remember I didn't care for it and found it artificially flat and staid. There's something of a similar quality in Moneyball.

There's definitely a tension between Sorkin's stylized writing - toned down a bit here (maybe by Zaillian) but still observable - and the very naturalistic, humdrum instincts of Miller. I feel like I read on another board somewhere that there were some tensions between writer & director - I wouldn't be surprised. Miller does not seem to be taking the approach hinted at in the screenplay.

Wasn't Soderbergh originally set to direct Moneyball? Or was it Fincher? Either way, the combination of Sorkin's heightened stylization & Miller's toned-down approach often put the damper on laugh lines (on the one hand) and made the scaled-back performances stand out awkwardly (on the other).

That said, I found the movie quite entertaining. I though some of the most successful aspects were those that probably seemed weakest on the page (and which, indeed, came in for criticism in your review) - the performances of the daughter and Hoffman, marginal but imbued with a kind of down-to-earth charm probably because Sorkin had underwritten them and thus there was room for Miller to flesh out the characterizations with the actor - more room for him to play with, which seemed to be what he was looking for but the screenplay didn't always give him.

Also fascinating was the larger phenomenon on display here - the fetishization of the entrepeneurial manager, ready to experiment and fuck with the system - at once a rebel and a master (a bit have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too). It was interesting when Pitt cut the player and there was no attempt to sex it up or sentimentalize it - just this guy's life/career has basically been ruined, and it sucks and no excuses about it are going to make it any better. Well, they let Pitt get a little more emotional than was advised earlier in the film, but still the basic thrust was: management calls the shots, the peon players suck it up.

Now, obviously this is professional sports we're talking about, and the analogies to other fields or professions are spotty at best, but the whole drift of the movie made me a bit uncomfortable (a sensation I generally like in watching a movie - I'd rather see a film challenge my instincts or worldview). I can't remember who said it on another thread - it might have been you - but at the rate we're going it's only a matter of time before the owner/CEO is hero of a sports movie. Something in the popular mythos/ethos is being lost. Ironically (or perhaps not so ironically) at a time when more people than ever are distanced/shorn from bourgeois security - Hollywood seems to be doubling-down on the cult of the creative executive as hero. And of course Sorkin wrote both this and The Social Network.

Joel Bocko said...

From a personal standpoint, my identification with the character slipped back and forth (simply as a matter of psychological projection, not necessarily judging his real-life actions). At times I sympathized with his bucking a system which seemed inherently elitist and good-old-boy, play-it-safe, (forgive the expression) inside-baseball - something that definitely exists far outside the realm of pro sports: doesn't it seem as if every new young actor is the son or daughter or some executive or celebrity? His desire to make baseball a meritocracy is refreshing to my eyes, facing a job market where so much seems to be based on who you know or what previous experience you have (never mind that to get that experience in the first place, you need an opportunity...).

On the other hand the approach seems rather...impersonal. Obviously the film toyed with a critique of this, when Pitt avoided any contact with the players until halfway through, but even after he was more "interactive" there was a bit of a "you're my tool" mentality in which Pitt slotted the human mechanisms into their place and told them exactly what to do. All in all, a fascinating correlation between the notion of "fair play" and "soulless automation."

(sorry this was so long...)

Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: No apologies necessary! Great thoughts!

I can't remember who said it on another thread - it might have been you - but at the rate we're going it's only a matter of time before the owner/CEO is hero of a sports movie.

That wasn't me. And I hadn't thought of that. But, yeah, I think you're probably right.

And yet, that's one of the things I didn't like as much about the movie, that the make it a story about a guy who must win in the front office because he failed on the field. It's true-to-life in many ways, but I'd love to see a profile about a guy who doesn't look like a movie-star jock who wants to kick ass just the same. (Again, Beane is a one-time rising star, so it's not like the movie conjured his past from thin air. But I could have gone for someone slightly less jock-like than Pitt. Then again, I suppose the Pitt/Hill combination is there to be the visual articulation of baseball as an athletic and statistical contest. So that works.

Thanks for weighing in!

Kevin J. Olson said...

Four months later, and I've finally written about the movie. Ha!

Here ya go, Jason. In short: I think we're on the same page with this one. Miller's prosaic directing style really derails parts of the film. I didn't really care about the film's attempts to humanize Beane, either. Boring! I wanted more VORP and WAR!!!