Friday, September 30, 2011

Swinging for the bleachers

First off, let's get one thing straight: Moneyball is not "The Social Network of baseball movies." Yes, they're both penned by Aaron Sorkin (though he shares a screenplay credit with Steven Zaillian here), and they'd both rather keep the action confined to the development of ideas. But that's about where it ends. The calculated coldness of David Fincher's film is nowhere to be found, and Bennett Miller gives Moneyball such an earnest, gruff quality that it sneakily builds into a roaring film that may very well rank among the best baseball films ever made. It certainly isn't like any of them.

The film is based on Michael Lewis's novel about how the Oakland Athletics built a competitive team out of the lowest salary in professional baseball and made a run at a divisional championship in the early 2000s using a complex system of statistics that bucked traditional scouting and managing trends. Moneyball is in one way about totally reinventing the wheel. It occasionally revels in a bit of baseball geek-speak not to be esoteric, but to get a tangible sense of what the debates about sabremetrics are all about.

But that's only half the story. Lewis described his book as the biography of an idea, so Zaillian and Sorkin carve the story of A's general manager Billy Beane into the foreground. Beane, a top high school prospect whose career nose-dived in the majors and has left him with a drastic sense of unfulfillment, finds his head on the chopping block at Oakland after other, wealthier teams poach his key players. And certainly, I feel like the film could speak to and be enjoyed by casual observers and non-fans of the game, as it puts Beane first and the diamond second.

In a sense, this is a classic story of redemption: a tortured protagonist fights for his moment of glory by defying the odds, beating the system, and finding his spotlight reinvigorated. I add the emphasis on classic and not cliched, because even though Moneyball may seem like those gruff underdog baseball movies fans of the game clamor for, it certainly isn't.

In fact, the project itself has a storied history that involves Sony pulling the plug when Steven Soderbergh was attached to direct several years ago. Brad Pitt remained invested, brought in Miller and Sorkin, and helped re-ignite the film. And for a work that draws on the emphasis of "the team" as opposed to "the superstar," Pitt, playing Beane, has certainly shred any veneer of his larger-than-life persona. At times, he is disarmingly casual -- haunted, even. With golf polos, track pants, and a bit of hair in his eyes, he often appears to be looking past what's in front of him -- unless, of course, it's the trade deadline, and then he's wholly committed to living in the moment.

And it's to Pitt and Miller's credit that they have assembled such a roster to work on the film, although their crew is certainly not undervalued. It starts with Miller -- this is, after all, his first film since 2005's Capote, and he still has a knack for the restrained. He finds a perfect partner in cinematographer Wally Pfister (last year's Oscar winner, and best known for lensing most of Chris Nolan's films). Pfister favors longer distances, as if his camera is lingering in the corner of a clubhouse. He lets lights and shadows infiltrate in natural ways that rarely feel disruptive, yet his framings still subtly comment on the relationship of the characters in their space.

When on the baseball field, however, his camera takes on an entirely different life force. The lights flood the field, it feels almost as if he's floating around, alternating frame rates, and yet there is something that feels so absolutely right about how he shoots baseball.

Editor Christopher Tellefsen, who edited Capote and some of Shyamalan's work among others, plays things very smart. There are many sequences that mingle television footage of the actual A's games, or use radio announcers from the games to tell the story, and he punctuates these well. At other times, such as when there's a big moment of suspense on the field, there are sharp edits that build scenes without feeling cheap. This is the same for the sound department, who mix in Mychael Danna's score marvelously, and find some terrific sound effects on the field (one instance in particular, where the entire sound track drops out except for the rattling crack of a bat, is magic). And Jess Gonchor, who's designed many of the Coens' films, provides a lived-in feel to the offices and club houses the narrative traverses.

But as much as I may try to rationalize and aesthetisize why Moneyball works, I simply can't dismiss one simple fact: It almost made me jump up and cheer, quite literally. I know, that's a silly and rather cliche thing for a film critic to write, but in this case it's absolutely true. The smartness and deftness with which this film is made lets it slowly build to some amazing emotional heights without ever selling out. There are so many moments where every element clicks, where it truly can catch you off guard.

I've heard some complain the film is actually unfair to the A's season -- it doesn't focus on, for instance, their award-winning pitching staff, and some characters are composites and stand-ins (as in Jonah Hill's stat-spewing assistant GM). I don't think that has any bearing on the film's overall quality (it is, after all, an adaptation) because it puts Beane front and center. This is, at the core, HIS story and NOT the A's.

It's a full-fledged character study that may care deeply about baseball, but only insofar as it can use baseball to help tell Beane's story. It is, in some ways, about a man who's become disenchanted by the game he loves, and who finds a way to re-energize himself and shake his establishment to the ground. Winning and losing on the field only matter if we can feel like we're winning it for ourselves and our own sense of purpose, the film seems to suggest. Baseball is a life force, a well that nourishes Beane and lets him learn to connect better to those around him.

It's high time we get a film that celebrates swinging for the bleachers without cheapening the moment with unnecessary layer of cheese.

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