There’s no doubt that baseball has its place in Hollywood. The sport has been the focus of numerous films, ranging wide in quality and genre. We’ve seen the comedy (Major League), the kid fantasy (Little Big League) the insider (Bull Durham), the inspiring true story (The Rookie), the mystical (Field of Dreams), and the just terrible (Summer Catch). A few have even been nominated for Oscars (eleven for Pride of the Yankees in 1942, four for The Natural in 1984). But these nominations were just a congratulatory pat on the back, a ticket to the Kodak Theatre, and a kick-ass goodie bag full of materialism; a kind way for the Academy to say “we recognize that baseball is was America’s Pastime, but there will always be far more important subject matter in the world of cinema.” Need an example? You don’t even have to leave the world of sports. Boxing has snagged two Best Picture statues (Rocky, Million Dollar Baby), three if you count On the Waterfront. The only other sports movie to ever win was Chariots of Fire, but honestly, has anyone born after its release in 1981 even seen it? Can you name any of the actors? I know I haven’t and that I can’t.
Recognizing that none of the above mentioned films were solely about sports, I need to draw a comparison to the “industry-standard” Best Picture nominee. More often than not, a nominee packages a micro-level story and serves it up as a metaphor for something greater. You only need to look back to last year’s Best Picture, The King’s Speech. Sure, the movie was about King George VI overcoming a crippling stammer in moments leading up to World War II, but it also speaks (no pun intended) to anyone that’s ever had trouble finding a voice. To the credit of sports films, they’ve done just this, but have become pigeon-holed as underdog stories. Films like Remember the Titans, and The Blind Side have recycled this blueprint and achieved critical success, but let’s be honest, neither had any shot at winning Best Picture. Plus this recycling has created an expectation. We now expect a sports movie to be about an underdog. And I realize its cliché to say it, but this story has become a cliché, and sports films have become a diminished product from an artistic perspective. Their originality instead lies in the shock-value of the story. We need the illogical to happen, and we need the illogical to have been true, otherwise the story will fail to draw us in.
Enter Moneyball, the Oscar-nominated film based of Michael Lewis’ bestseller about the Oakland A’s, their GM Billy Beane, and learning how to compete in an unfair game. I remember a few years back when I heard they were planning to make the book into a movie, and I thought they were nuts. It wasn’t so much a cohesive story as it was a series of related anecdotes and a high-level introduction to the world of SABR-metrics. Added to this, the idea already seemed dated. Moneyball (in its pure form) has since proven to be a grossly flawed front-office philosophy, serving more as a complement to the tried-and-true talent evaluation process. So how were they going to package this into anything coherent or anything even remotely relevant? Easy, it just required Grade-A movie talent at the top of their game.
The making of a Best Picture relies heavily on the art of filmmaking, and this art needs to be complemented by craft, or a technical skill set that can make the art come to life (and ultimately connect with the audience) in a way that only movies can. This combination is rare. In fact, looking at the current field of Best Picture nominees a few clearly fail to meet this standard—for instance, The Help and Tree of Life. The Help tells the story of how white people ended racism in the South (just kidding, but seriously), and Tree of Life tries to parallel the creation of the universe with the complexities of a 1950s Texas family. These are two very different movies that (at least to me) miss the mark in very different ways. The Help is a crowd-pleaser than excels in emotion but falls short in craft. The story is flawed and the filmmaking generic. Tree of Life by contrast excels in ambition and beauty, but compromises the audience by being purely art, and lacks entertainment value (I like to consider myself a patient movie-goer, but at nearly two and half-hours it got a bit rough watching light peak through trees, Sean Penn staring at a desk entrenched in deep thought, and the cross-cutting of animated dinosaurs scouring the country-side for food)… I mean, I got it (I think), but I didn’t care.
Moneyball succeeds where these two movies fail. It is the total package. Starting with the technical side, the film is first-rate. Director Bennett Miller’s sets the David vs. Goliath tone early and keeps the pace fast. Front-office scenes that in real life are probably long and boring have a real sense of urgency, and an insider feel that leads the viewer into thinking their part of it all, as if they’re part of a special circle of those privileged enough to get paid to play fantasy baseball for real. Miller compliments this with a clever mix of former professional athletes (Royce Clayton plays Miguel Tejada!), enabling baseball scenes to appear realistic, because after all, is anything worse than watching poorly constructed sports scenes with poorly constructed actors masquerading as athletes? There’s also the sentiment needed for an emotional connection, and the film’s two sub-plots unfold nicely to reinforce Billy Beane’s character. One involves the relationship with his daughter, and the other focuses on Beane’s personal brush with professional baseball as a failed five-tool first round pick of the New York Mets who bypassed a full ride to Stanford to take the money and a shot at stardom. The film has a clear, romantic visual identity, which can be credited to talented cinematographer Wally Pfister (who has previous worked on visual gems The Dark Knight and Inception). And then of course there is the acting, where Brad Pitt is the clear standout (rightfully nominated for a Best Actor Oscar). Pitt brings the necessary charisma to his character in a way that only he can. He’s sharp, funny, and rugged enough to hint at a continued sense of self-doubt. Next in line is Jonah Hill (also nominated), playing Peter Brand, a recent Yale grad with a degree in economics and a nerdy passion for statistics. Hill turns in his usual dead-pan character performance, but it’s a joy to watch it unravel as he gets to witness his ideas succeed first hand.
Next there’s the true highlight of the film, the writing. Without a doubt Moneyball’s script is the sharpest of the year, full of great one-liners, witty banter, and a hint of David Mamet-ian dialogue. This can be attributed to writers Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, who were able to distill Lewis’ book into a story that respects the premise of the book, appeases the baseball junkies, and elevates the plot to a level that gives it deeper meaning and relevance. In many ways a direct comparison can be drawn to last year’s The Social Network (also penned by Sorkin and totally robbed of the Best Picture Oscar). The Social Network wasn’t a movie about Facebook just like Moneyball isn’t a movie about baseball. It aims for much more, paralleling the challenges of the sport to the inequalities in modern capitalism, and the triumphs to the spirit that keeps the American Dream alive. Does it anger Billy Beane that his serves as a superstar breeding ground for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees? Absolutely. But does he make excuses and feel sorry for himself? Absolutely not. Instead, Beane pulls together some intellectual capital, challenges the status quo, and despite his apprehensions takes a huge risk, knowing that complacency will never be enough to satisfy his drive for redemption. “Adapt or die,” he says, and never is that more relevant than in today’s competitive and ever-changing world where technology turns over every couple of years. Just think about the irony that the host of the Academy Awards, the Kodak Theatre, is named after a company that recently had to file for bankruptcy because they couldn’t do just that.
This is where Moneyball really starts to separate itself from the crowded field of nominees. It’s the use of baseball as a vehicle for something larger, a highly relevant purpose, and a ground-breaking approach to a genre that often sits on the sidelines come award season. Fellow nominees War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close both serve up traditional Oscar bait with the all too familiar backdrops of war and catastrophe. Midnight in Paris, while certainly on par in entertainment value and writing, lacks the touch of a true filmmaker (let’s be honest, Woody Allen is a writer, not a director). The Descendents is an exceptional film and George Clooney’s performance should bring him home his second Oscar, but the movie is too predictable, and parallels drawn between Clooney’s need for closure with his dead wife and the family trust that owns a goldmine of real estate in Hawaii is lacking. This brings us to Hugo. I have to admit that I didn’t see Hugo, but I have no doubt whatsoever that is was nothing short of masterful. After all, Scorsese is the best filmmaker of that last 50 years. Its struggles at the box office however indicate that it didn’t resonate with audiences. Now this isn’t a great reason to write it off, but it is a valid reason. To be the Best Picture a movie should be deemed important, or at least relevant, and a box office failure (especially at $12 a ticket, more for the 3D shows) shouldn’t be the Best Picture of the year.
And then there’s The Artist, a silent film that employs the age-old formula of one character entering the twilight of his career crossing paths with another who’s career is just getting started (not to mention the age-old gimmick of cinematic nostalgia). Now I have nothing against the filmmakers for trying something different (or at least that hasn’t been done in some time), and you have to tip your cap to the idea, but where was the risk? Did the filmmakers have anything to lose? Not in the least. And the reward? Gobs of award nominations from people that love nothing more than to celebrate their own existence (just reference every Academy Awards show, ever). There was no way the Academy could resist a well-made silent film in 2012, a perfect counter to the special effects and the 3-D, and this makes The Artist annoying. Movies of its kind will always been included in the awards discussion, while films like 50/50, Win Win, and Drive will always be shutout in its favor.
Moneyball is anything but this. “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” comments Billy Beane after his A’s clinched a record setting the twentieth consecutive victory. But that’s for the fans. He knows that baseball has a short memory and that even sometimes champions are quickly discarded. But if you change how the game is played, and you force others to rethink years and years of business as usual, it is then that you truly make a difference, and that will never be forgotten. Moneyball changes the game, and its about time Hollywood recognized a movie that did.