Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Its Easy to be Romantic About Baseball" - "Moneyball" Review

Baseball is an odd sport if you really break it down. A series of seemingly random skills are put to the test in the most unconventional of arenas imaginable. Players are asked to swing a large, heavy, wooden stick to blast a small object as far as possible at one moment and to exercise acute precision and agility the next. To me it always seemed a gentleman’s hobby, like polo, as if it were designed as a lark on an abnormally dreary weekend.

It could be the uniforms but I feel that baseball has managed to hang onto that seemingly indelible sense of romanticism. Though time has been rough on the sport, with scandals arriving weekly, I can still distinctly remember my youthful connection to the sport and its players.

Growing up in Baltimore meant something in the mid-90s; Cal Ripken Jr. was like family as well as the heart of the city. Loyalty meant something and being part of the “boys’ club” was to participate in seasonal battle with the gods.

In Moneyball, protagonist Billy Beane reflects, “It’s easy to be romantic about baseball.” Moneyball makes it seem incredibly easy, as it oozes nostalgia and reverence for a sport that functions as a perfect allegory for the American spirit and capitalistic infrastructure.

Brad Pitt, proving he not only has good-looks but also well-honed acting skills, stars as Billy Beane, the struggling general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Billy’s struggle comes from the sudden departure of all of his best players to play for money teams, like the New York Yankees, and the announcement of a severely reduced budget for his team to work with.

How can his team compete with a team like the Yankees, who can afford to spend ten times his budget?

Billy’s failure as a pro baseball player continues to haunt him and cloud his decision-making, as he begins his quest to answer that question. Eventually his quest lands him a chance encounter with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale University graduate who believes that with his mathematical genius he has divined the very answer Billy seeks.

Peter posits that there are enough overlooked, statistically abnormal players in the league that, when assembled for a low cost, would be able to compete against giants like the Yankees. Billy sees merit in Peter’s idea and with no other alternative decides to go against conventional wisdom, and his team’s wishes, and hires him as his co-manager.

Pretty soon, undervalued players from across the country find themselves in Oakland for spring training, and Billy is faced with scorn from all sides. Billy and Peter are looking to not only transform the face of the Athletics but baseball as a sport as well.

Director Bennett Miller (Capote) smartly chooses to focus on only a few of these players, each one a memorable addition meant to reflect back on Billy, so that they don’t steal the focus away from Billy or Peter. Moneyball isn’t so much about their on-field action, despite a few nail-biting moments, as it is about the lives they live and how it affects their performance.

The script, especially the hyper-natural dialogue, is as fantastic as you might expect from Aaron Sorkin (Oscar-winner for The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Oscar- winner for Schindler’s List). Even with minimal screen-time, side-characters develop a life of their own with motivations that are clear and consistent. Even Phillip Seymour Hoffman returns to work with Bennett in a quieter role than he is known for playing.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Moneyball and The Social Network. Both films, written by Aaron Sorkin, star a tormented protagonist looking to upset the established order through the use of intellect and 21st century thinking. However, Moneyball’s Billy isn’t as damaged as The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg was utilized to represent a modern reinvention of the social contract. He existed in a world where those in power could feel free to use it with no mind for those in their wake. His was the axe to grind; the rest of the world was to watch their necks.

Baseball, as an enterprise, functions as a perfect simulation of American capitalism. Its economic theory is every man for himself: if you have the money you will go far and if not you will quickly disintegrate. It’s no wonder why people have stopped going to Baltimore games, games that used to sell out when I was a child.

Billy Beane’s plight is a challenge to this very system, one that seems relevant and rejuvenating in these dismal economic times. When the very system that Billy has fought so hard and succeeded against attempts to welcome him into their fold, his ultimate decision is all the more heroic.

In the end, Moneyball isn’t really about the money at all. It is about one man’s loyalty to the sport he loves and the romanticism he is still willing to step up to the plate for.

3 / 4 Reels


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