Review: Whatever terrible implications the following confession may have for my masculinity, I feel it must be made. Let the record show that I do not enjoy sports. I do not enjoy watching them, playing them, or thinking about how much time other people spend following them. Pretty much the only sport I could ever get excited about is (legitimately magical) Quidditch. I only care about them in sympathy with friends, making for a very temporary affinity. Given this predilection, sports movies tend to leave me cold. The culture simply does not resonate with me. If I am to appreciate a sports film, I have to connect with it in some way beyond the outcome of the games, as these formulaic confrontations can thrill in the moment but seem, frankly, pathetically overblown in hindsight. As with any genre, for a sports film to succeed it must first do so as art rather than dramatization. There’s a key difference; dramatization inherently lacks authenticity, working from the surface down, while art builds from human nature up. When a film is sufficiently artistic, whatever genre it grows into is the inevitable result of its underlying human truths.
‘Moneyball’s underlying truth is that people fall short of their dreams, and some fall harder than others. Brad Pitt, an actor I’m praising more and more often, plays the real-life General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, a man who survived a crushing blow to his dream of baseball stardom on the field by changing the game’s behind-the-scenes mechanics for the better. The two screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin (‘The Social Network’) and Steve Zaillian (‘Schindler’s List’) refuse to baldly state Beane’s subconscious motivations. Such obvious dialog often appears in sports films, as “I just wanna do X so I can be Y”, or any number of variations thereof, and this sort of thing sucks the suspense right out of every subsequent scene. In a principle going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, the emotional revelation should only occur in tandem with the climax of the story, and it should do so in a way that it occurs to the audience and the characters at the same moment. And so it goes in ‘Moneyball’, as the truth that Beane is actually struggling for redemption hounds us and him through every scene, only bubbling up to the surface — but still without a direct statement — at the climax.
The other great character in ‘Moneyball’ is portrayed by, of all people, Jonah Hill, the portly, geeky comedic actor of ‘Superbad’ fame. He’s the film’s pleasantest surprise, crafting a legitimate spin on his usual archetype that feels stunningly true to life. Pitt and Hill have a distinct chemistry that recalls Redford and Hoffman in ‘All The President’s Men’, a perfect one-two punch of complimentary personalities. There’s Billy Beane, athletic, lanky, drawl and confident, and beside him is Peter Brandt, chubby, short, nervous and exploratory. Beane acts as Brandt’s natural mentor in most ways, but Brandt is actually Beane’s in the most critical areas. Hill shows incredible range here, and I hope he keeps taking up disparate roles and avoids the comedy pigeonhole that has trapped so many of his cinematic antecedents.
The book on which this film is based bears the title because it is mainly concerned with the economic implications of the story. The film, on the other hand, is a proper adaptation because it finds something cinematic in the book and expounds on it. An improper adaptation tries to match, content-for-content, the source material. This is a common and easily avoidable mistake. To adapt anything, one must not ask what was said, but rather what was not said or not said enough. These are the things that lend themselves to extensive permutation and therefore proper adaptation. Sometimes, a story’s innate greatness is such that it can naturally cross mediums without harm, but this is extraordinarily rare, and even in such cases the adaptors must find a way to channel this greatness in a manner specific to the medium. A natural adaptation is not necessarily the best adaptation.
Also working in ‘Moneyball’s favor is Wally Pfister’s cinematography. Cinephiles may recognize him as Christopher Nolan’s most frequent collaborator. His work here with director Bennett Miller is up to the usual par. His fragmented, psuedo-documentarian style lends the baseball montages a memorable dreamlike quality. There’s typically a lot of depth in the compositions as well. Take my favorite sequence, for example: Beane and Brandt face off in a battle of wills with the Oakland A’s scouts, the confrontation being framed in a conference room at a long table. Pfister tightens the focus so that each change in speaker — and, due to the strong writing, each dramatic turnabout — is highlighted, and the room’s depth is retained. It recalls Lumet’s technique in ‘Twelve Angry Men’. In this way Miller, Pfister and editor Christopher Tellefsen avoid the usual method of cutting from speaker to speaker, only making such cuts to isolate characters or illustrate their relationships to one another when the story calls for it.
‘Moneyball’ just works beautifully. Its immediate impact may be diminished, depending on the individual, because of how well the story’s emotional core is sublimated, but it is a film that makes you think, and I couldn’t help returning to it and discovering that it continues to pay dividends long after it is over. The term “forgettable” is often thrown about in critical circles, but what is it that makes a film stick in or slip from the memory? I would say that a memorable film is one that works powerfully on the subconscious, giving shape to emotions and concepts that otherwise lack definition. A forgettable film exists only the surface. ‘Moneyball’ is terrifically memorable, and highly recommended.
For further reading on ‘Moneyball’, I recommend Once Upon A Time In The Cinema’s take.