19 December 2011

MONEYBALL (Dir. Bennett Miller, 2011, US)

We are drawn to films for all kinds of reasons, be they personal, political or just genuine curiosity. Moneyball is a film set in the world of American baseball but what drew me to this film was the presence of Brad Pitt. Over the years, Pitt’s reputation as an actor has solidified and his name has become synonymous with quality American cinema. However, films like The Assassination of Jesse James, Babel, Tree of Life and Moneyball are neither mainstream nor art house but carve out a cinematic space in the middle. Moneyball does a similar thing. The film uses Brad Pitt’s star presence merely as an anchor for the wider commercial aspects but the style adopted by director Bennett Miller is altogether restrained and even theatrical. Although the camera does move, much of the action is dialogue based and many of the key sequences are shot using long takes, simple edits and a pared down approach to mise en scene construction. Scriptwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zallian repeat the trick of The Social Network by turning a potentially alienating aspect of popular culture (especially for the general spectator), and in this case an American tradition, into an emotionally involving character study about confidence, luck, stardom and most poignantly, personal failure.

Based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, the story revolves around general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who puts together a slate of baseball players based on statistical analysis. Actor Jonah Hill plays the economics graduate from Yale who becomes intrinsic to Beane’s gamble. This unorthodox method allows Beane to build up a team but on a budget several times lower than many of the top Baseball clubs. The method results in a record breaking twenty win running streak for the Oakland Athletics. Unfortunately the club comes undone at the last hurdle. The flashbacks in the film take us back to a time when Beane as a young teenager was discovered by Scouts and offered a major contract to play in the major leagues. However, Beane chooses baseball over a scholarship and fails to live up to his potential. It is this early personal failure that perpetually haunts Beane and when he decides to quit the game to become a scout, it sets him on the path to becoming a manager. The intrinsic connection between the past and present transforms Beane into somewhat of a noirish figure. He has never come to terms with the trauma of his past and the lack of self confidence that resulted in his departure from the game at a relatively early age impacts on the decisions he makes as a manager. By taking a statistical approach to sport, what Beane attempts to demonstrate is that confidence and winning are elements that can be manufactured, and are not inherently detectable in the personality of an individual. Beane’s calculated approach also proves another valid point in the world of sport, that spotting talent may be intuitive and the traditional means by which individuals are discovered, but if the risk of failure could be pre-determined then this would mean talent becomes somewhat irrelevant and it all becomes about the competency of a player in the context of the whole team. Beane discovers that personal failure is an aspect of the game which cannot be solved mathematically, that it is a real human emotion that must be confronted no matter how hard one tries to repress such failure as a romantic affliction.

What makes Moneyball even more unconventional as a sports film is the open ending. Goals are typically fulfilled at the end of a Hollywood narrative but given the fact Moneyball occupies the precious middle ground in American cinema, rejection of such rules or traditions becomes an expectation. Such an expectation is validated in the final moments, which sees Beane literally driving away from a potential new future as general manager of a major baseball club. In the previous sequence, Beane rejects an offer to manage the Red Sox because winning would mean a new set of expectations, a new philosophy and in a way, redemption. The painful reality is that Beane is not searching for redemption – his preference for a flawed past and wallowing in loss is what defines his very existence and to go against such a personal ideology would mean his destruction. In a tragic sort of way, the ritual of loss becomes the passion for Beane when in fact it should be the ultimate goal in his life. Moneyball makes for a riveting social drama and in my opinion is one of the best American films of the year.

3 comments:

  1. Although I was put off by Miller's direction, I was really, really surprised by this one. What I thought would play as an ideal manager-worship, becomes something very unsettling. And it has provoked such a variety of readings, which a straightforward Hollywood film rarely allows. You look at Beane's tragedy, I was looking at his redundant role as manager, someone on twitter suggested a spiritual reading. Uncanny.

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  2. Now that is an interesting alternative reading - the redundant manager; hmmm, seems to offer more clarity to his character and what about this spiritual reading - that also sounds altogether more radical. Perhaps this plurality is a sign of the film's strengths then?

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  3. Yes, that was the estimable Blake Williams. Here, http://twitter.com/#!/Astrostic

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