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I’m a gamer, always have been.

Moneyball – Even the Losers Get Lucky Sometimes

There is a reason we have long since married our American spirit to baseball, and a reason why it’s the only sport with any romanticism attached to it, and there’s a reason why the camera loves baseball movies.  The crack of the ball hitting the bat, that ten seconds of waiting to see where the ball will go, writing your ending off a wing and a prayer.  But it isn’t just the hit, it’s the catcher, the pitcher, the outfielder, the umpire – it’s the three strikes – it’s the boys of summer, the cheering fans, and it’s the movies.  The relationship of baseball to the big screen is as American as rolled up blue jeans, the Mississippi Delta and the stuff of dreams – the audacity of imagining the impossible.

America and baseball and movies – this enduring love story is revived once again in Bennett Miller’s subtle, effective telling of the Oakland A’s inexplicable winning streak, turning their own history around with the help of statistical analysis.  One of the key lines in the film is about money – “money is never a reason to do anything.”  Yet the big show, we know, is almost all about money – how much can you afford to pay a player to win the game?  Can you still play the game if you can’t come up with the millions of dollars it takes?

But fans don’t gather in the stands to watch the money — not for any sport, but certainly not for baseball. We’re there for the game, the crack of the bat, the shut-out, the one time when an unlikely player hits a home run, even if he himself doesn’t know it until the crowd cheers.  Baseball, it’s full of all of the things that make life worth living, even when it’s less about winning and more about losing.  When you get used to losing, the successes, the minor victories, the winning streaks are all the sweeter.

We already knew that Steve Zaillion and Aaron Sorkin would turn out a good script.  What I’d been hearing was that the writing held the thing up and that it wasn’t much more than that.  Those early judgments turned out to be wrong — what makes Moneyball so good is more about the directing and the acting than it is even about the writing. I know, imagine me saying such a thing about something Sorkin has touched, but believe me, Bennett Miller’s direction is, ultimately, what makes Moneyball work so well.  He sees in there a story that I don’t think anyone else could have seen.

The greatness of Moneyball is partly in the big scenes, yes.  But it is mostly in the tight closeups of Brad Pitt’s face, a face that has now evolved out of boyhood at last, and become the actor’s canvas he’s promised throughout his career.  His beauty has blinded us in many ways to what’s going on beyond it, but here, because Bennett Miller knows how to shoot him, especially in closeup, we see, finally, the deeper emotions at play.  I don’t think Robert Redford ever got here.  Warren Beatty certainly did, not that the Academy ever rewarded him for it.

Pitt’s Billy Beane is not completely true to history, as Steve Pond tells me, but that hardly matters because the facts of this thing take a back seat to his character’s arc. Moneyball is about a player who gave up a full scholarship to Stanford to play pro ball because a baseball scout saw in him the stuff that big money winners are built on.  But Beane couldn’t cut it.  He never lived up to those expectations, and when baseball was done with him what did he have left?  He ends up becoming the general manager of the Oakland A’s.  He’s trained to not get too close to players, to always stay ahead of the attachment and the sentiment.  But because he used to be a player he understands the game from a player’s perspective, not from a scout’s or an owner’s.

Beane’s own failure drives his motives here: pick the losers because they get on base.  Forget the expensive “stars.”  He shook up the game, was hated by everyone, until he changed how the game was played.  Of course, in real life this was not so much the case, apparently.  But that hardly matters because this is a story being told on screen.  It’s a story about winners and losers.  The true story can exist too.  The movie doesn’t change history — but it might change our own perception of what it means to be good at baseball.

Personal failure is a funny thing.  In many respects, Moneyball will hit directly in the heart for those who have been through the stages of life where they watched their dreams become compromises.  They learned to adjust, to accept that dreams can only float upward for so long. Sooner or later, they have no way to go but down.  But we know, don’t we, that life is much more about what happens while you’re busy making other plans.  Who knew that Miller, Zaillian and Sorkin could tell this truth so well.

Every time you hear someone say “it’s not an Oscar movie” that lifts its chances higher.  It’s a funny thing, the Oscar race.  It’s all about managing expectations.   But if it were me I wouldn’t underestimate it – not for its director, who holds this story together with all of the different forces, including non-actors in important roles, not for its star, who turns in the best performance of his career, not for its supporting players, especially Jonah Hill, but Philip Seymour Hoffman too, as the hard-hearted, ego-driven coach.

Moneyball wasn’t propositioned as an “Oscar movie” and in fact, after seeing it last night I was greeted with a lot of “I am not seeing Best Picture here,” and “I don’t think the Academy is going to go for it.”   Those responses made me smile a little – because, damn it all, if that wasn’t the theme of Moneyball playing out.  Why, because this idea of “show ponies” is proven wrong year after year (with the possible exception of last year), just as it is in baseball, and yet no one wants the game to change.  A good movie like Moneyball only gets better odds if it ISN’T thought of as an Oscar movie heading into the race.  Do you see what they did there?

And the fact is that the only thing anyone, especially Oscar bloggers, should concern themselves with isn’t dumbing themselves down to keep Oscar’s taste in their comfortable box (although Moneyball fits nicely in there too) but to celebrate a great movie.  Oscar voters are people too and people respond to films that this well directed, well acted and well written. So when Kris Tapley and Steve Pond say to me “it’s a good movie but …I don’t see AMPAS going for it.” I take the first part and disregard the rest.  Why, because nobody knows anything.  The one thing I do know, and have learned, is a good movie is a good movie is a good movie.   It’s one thing to expect them to vote down the crowd favorite, The King’s Speech. It’s a whole other thing to see them not vote for a crowdpleaser like Moneyball. When you’re talking about nominees, you always want to find a movie like Moneyball because it will never be polarizing, it is populated with very well liked people, from its writers to its directors to its stars to its subject matter.   The only thing that stands in Moneyball’s way right now is what the major critics will think.  That matters a lot more than what Oscar bloggers think.

So what is Moneyball about?  It’s about recognizing the gifts of people who aren’t stars, who have been forgotten, who, working together, become winners.  Sure, many films about baseball are about losers: Bull Durham and Crash Davis who has to go play in the minor leagues and redesign his later life as a coach.  Field of Dreams is about the White Sox who were greeted with disgrace when they fixed a game – and how, for them, it was always about the game.  But we know from these movies, and now from Moneyball, that money is often the reason the game of baseball can feel so rotten — at the heart of it is the glorious game.  The game is the reason they start playing as kids, and it’s the reason they can’t let go as adults.

Yes, the numbers game turns people off, especially the old timers who don’t want to see the game change. But money already changed the game.  Big, big money.  What Beane does in this film is true to who he is: a forgotten player whose moment in the sun was never realized.  He gave up a life for the game.  Adapt or die.  He learns this and it inspires him to do just that.  So for once, the losers are more valuable than the winners.  We sometimes forget that what we already have is more valuable than what we want.