dir: Bennett Miller
Why would I watch a flick about baseball? Why would anyone? That is, why would anyone watch a flick about a sport they know nothing about apart from its existence, and couldn’t care less about?
Well, there have been some decent baseball flicks, for which it doesn’t matter a tinker’s dam whether you’re a fan of the sport or not. Eight Man Out, Cobb, The Babe, The Natural, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams: they're all the ones I can think of right now. You can argue that it’s not even the sport itself which is relevant in terms of whether they’re good films or not: it’s the story that goes along with it, eliciting as it does awe, hope, joy, boredom, strange sexual feelings and probably other darker emotions that I'm not privy to.
Well, truth be told the only reason I saw Moneyball is because I’d seen a lot of good reviews, a lot of praise for it, and many if not all of those reviews said stuff like “you don’t have to be a fan of baseball to enjoy the flick”. And so I watched it.
The reality is, though, if you don’t know or care about baseball, or sport in general, this film could bore you so much that you eventually hate any mention of it, or have all affection eroded you may have had for the athletic arts.
It doesn’t really give us a lot of reasons to care. Moneyball, I would argue, is the exact opposite of those flicks that you can think of, or any sport flick which has this basic premise: team of underachieving misfits band together to beat the odds and take on the snootier, nastier team in the final to just barely scrape through in the end, usually because of one really inspirational speech a captain or coach or sick child gives the team.
That’s not a bad thing, per se, but if you don’t enjoy scene after scene of Brad Pitt mugging the screen, and you don’t give a fat rat’s fuckhole about baseball, there’s practically nothing for you here.
It’s going to make me seem limited and unimaginative, but I’m going to say it anyway: I found the whole thing pretty goddamn boring, though not without some elements of mild interest. Even with its cynicism towards the sport, and the whole passionate tribalism aspect reduced to nothing before our eyes, there isn’t really enough to justify my time. And it’s over two goshdarned hours as well. And my time is ever so valuable.
Some time in the 1990s, the general manager of the Oakland As, called Billy Beane (Pitt) embarks on a controversial path after the team loses some of its best players to other richer teams, including the hated New York Yankees. Steinbrenner, one of the most hated names in baseball except for Pete Rose, gets mentioned several times (see, I do know something about the sport).
So Beane’s task is to rebuild the team so that it can win, but he doesn’t have the money to get the players that everyone else has and wants. He sits in on the meetings carried out by the scouts and recruiters, and listens as they talk about all the qualities of prospective players that have nothing to do with their abilities as players. These grizzled old guys will talk about a player’s jawline, his style and machismo on the field, the attractiveness of their girlfriends, all these remarkably unimportant details, you’d think. The point, from their perspective, is that there are factors at play that only old pros can see that might make someone a great athlete and an asset to the team. It’s not just about whether they can swing a bat.
It’s almost heartening, uplifting, as an idea. In these times of reductive thinking, where people are compartmentalised and quantified according to demography and preference and such, reduced to mere numbers, it’s nice to know that there are people out there who still think people are more than the sum of their parts, more than just the numbers they can be reduced to. It feels good to hear, from baseball recruiters and poets that there are ineffable aspects to our being, for which our limited, structured approaches miss that which is truly important, even if it is invisible to the eye (thanks for nothing, Little Prince).
But the whole reason for this film, and the whole reason why anyone would even consider making a flick about Billy Beane and the Oakland As and something as seemingly unremarkable as the statistical analysis method known as sabermetrics, is that it takes all the history, all the passion, all the uniqueness out of this particular human endeavour, and says it ain’t worth shit. It reduces everything to cold, hard data.
So, it’s an anti-sports film, from our perspective. There’s none of that - rallying from behind, giving your all, 110%, giving your life for the team - bullshit. The players are a means to an end, to be picked up and dropped or discarded as circumstances require, like the cheapest and most plastic of chess pieces. It reduces their contribution, heroic or otherwise, to a simple number, then compares that number with the money paid to get that contribution, and then says “well, we can get the same result from a guy we can pay half a million less, so bye-bye and so long.”
“So it’s so long, good luck, after all the pain, all the years I gave this team?” says the player, nearly in tears.
“I don’t remember saying “good luck”” could be the callous reply.
Ah, the pure inhumanity of statistics. Look, it might sound like I’m going to launch off into a tirade about how the soul’s gone out of the game and how in days of yore blah blah blah or how money changed the nature of sports and our relationship with it and it would all be empty bloviating. I don’t care. It wouldn’t be genuine. These people get paid a lot of money, and as to whether they’re worth it or not I can’t say. Only their owners can say when they calculate their return on investment. The fans of these teams would be the best placed to say, from at least a personal perspective.
But they’re the ones, surely, that would be most offended by this flick. This flick, or, better yet, this representation of what it’s really like, makes their love of the sport or identification with a team seem ridiculous. It emphasises the fact that it’s a business first and foremost, and utmost, to the exclusion of everything else in a way that just has to be depressing.
Still, there are these flashes that are meant to give some glimmer of meaning beyond the purely corporate. Pete (Jonah Hill), the Yale graduate who gave Beane the tools to unleash this grey managerial Armageddon onto the sport, sees some beauty in it beyond the result, although it’s unclear, based on this flick, whether he knew or cared anything about the game beyond installing his methodology and seeing it through.
Beane, though, as played by Pitt, just seems to be a driven, anger-management-compromised unremarkable chap. There’s little interesting about the man, and it’s unclear what the achievement really is that he achieves beyond something that could easily be represented on a spreadsheet. I understand that it must have meant a lot to him to have his reputation on the line like that, and how hurtful the mean comments of nasty people must have been when he carried out his experiment, but I understand that being a general manager of a baseball team is probably stressful for all of the managers, and that they all feel oh so sad when they lose.
I didn’t like his performance here, and if he gets nominated for this instead of Tree of Life it will really be a crime. Also, I can’t really see the point of the film unless it was to undermine people’s affection for baseball or sport in general, because while the principle participants in this charade might feel vindicated in a numerical sense, I never really understood why the rest of us were supposed to care. Even if Jonah Hill’s performance here is the first of his that doesn’t make me want to punch him in his corpulent nuts, he’s achieved this mighty feat mostly by being dull enough to not upstage the grey office furnishings that surround him.
But all the same, it’s a competent, well-made film, I can’t argue with that. The scenes are well shot; the one game we see the majority of, when Oakland is trying to win its 20th game in a historic streak, is suitably tense, and there’s a bit of humour interspersed amongst all the managerial dullness.
It’s just not for me, sports fans, not for me
6 times any flick based on statistics is struggling to maintain my wakefulness out of 10
“How can you not get romantic about baseball?” – it’s surprisingly easy not to, I assure you - Moneyball