MONEYBALL (Bennett Miller, 2011)

According to Wikipedia, sabermetrics is “the specialized analysis of baseball through objective, empirical evidence, specifically[,] baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.” It is a method of assessing the value of a player that the uses to which he has been put may not have revealed. As conveyed to him by a young Yale-educated assistant, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, applied its theoretical principles to the reconstitution of his team after losing three key players following the team’s loss to the New York Yankees in the 2001 American League division series. Beane needed the edge that sabermetrics provided owing to the relatively meager payroll with which he had available to him to recruit players. Most of the film’s action unfolds in the 2002 season, during which eleven consecutive losses are followed by an American League record 20-game winning streak.
     Beane’s appetite for winning is given two ironical counterpoints in Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script, which Bennett has sensitively directed: his divorced status, that is, the failure of his marriage; in slivers of flashback, his expectations of success as a professional ball player, which also were dashed in subsequent failure.
     In one area of his life Billy Beane is incontestably an ongoing success: his relationship with Casey, his 12-year-old daughter. Although loyalty to the A’s certainly weighs in, as does his dream of bringing specifically that team to ultimate victory and thereby succeeding where he feels he has thus far failed, it is also to remain near Casey that he ultimately rejects an offer from the Boston Red Sox that would have made him the highest paid general manager in baseball.
     This is an incredibly moving film—and fascinating, too, for its economic analysis of the business end of baseball and its statistical analysis of players. It is without doubt the best ever American film backgrounded in sports, one that finally shakes loose the genre from the tear-jerking, inspirational formula that has made this genre so discreditable, manipulative, sentimental, even ridiculous. Above all, Sorkin and Miller’s film is keenly intelligent.
     Had Steven Soderbergh directed it, as was to happen before he was correctly dropped from the project, this would have been an inane film. (Soderbergh had announced his intention to exploit the comedic potential in the material.) Rather, the version we have has the “male menopausal” richness of a driven middle-aged man’s emotional experience. It reminded me in this regard of Sam Peckinpah’s beautiful Junior Bonner (1972), about a largely lived-out rodeo circuit cowboy.
     Moneyball is based on the 2003 nonfictional book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The early scripts were by Stan Chervin, who was replaced by Steven Zaillian once Chervin dropped out. Zaillian’s script proved a disaster, and Sorkin was brought in to create something useable. Sorkin had been the creator and main writer of Sports Night, one of the finest television series of all time.
     The film’s principal weakness is its star, Brad Pitt (best actor, National Society of Film Critics, New York critics, Boston critics), who idealizes his role as Billy Beane. But what is one supposed to do when the person he is playing actually exists? Pitt’s performance is thin and mannered, but it is a performance; as such, it is heads and shoulders above anything else Pitt has done—and, unmannered, his scenes with the actress playing Casey are lovely. Jonah Hill, though, is better as Peter Brand, the sabermetrical whiz kid based on Paul DePodesta.
     The script was named the year’s best by critics’ groups in New York, Boston, Chicago and Toronto.

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