Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Moneyball" (Not Quite A Review)

Moneyball is a floppy-eared puppy of a movie that I wish were better but it isn’t, though, considering its subject matter, it’s probably better than it has any right to be. (That’s why this is not quite a review. A review would have offered a snappier opening sentence.)

Here’s Moneyball’s premise, if you don’t already know. (It’s also the premise if you do already know.) Adopting a statistical approach to identifying overlooked and undervalued baseball players, the beleaguered General Manager of the cash-strapped Oakland A’s commits to a revolutionary strategy in order to compete with far wealthier teams, challenging baseball’s longstanding tradition of player evaluation in the process.

Try selling that at a studio “pitch meeting.” A baseball movie about math. But somehow, the producers pulled it off. So solid points for that. And for the fact that they provided a sports movie lacking the standard “we fought against great odds but we triumphed in the end” trajectory. Which I hate.

Adhering to the mandate from its backers, Moneyball, the movie, eerily mirrors its subject matter. Though the movie boasts a huge star, Brad Pitt, and two Oscar-winning writers, Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Moneyball is, compared with the current movies crop, a low-tech endeavor with a clearly limited budget (a conservative hedge against box office rejection).

Just like the A’s had to find creative ways to make it with a constricted payroll, the Moneyball production seems to have faced a similar challenge. (Production value-wise, it paid the price. With its reliance on inexpensive stock footage and minimal staged on-field performance, Moneyball is slowed by a lack of crackling action, a war movie with no battle scenes.)

Okay. Now.

Aaron Sorkin is one of Moneyball’s two credited screenplay writers. (Another writer, Stan Chervin, is credited with the story.) Oh, here’s something you might not know. When two writers are credited on the screen and there’s an “and” between their names, as in “Written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin”, it means, not that they were a team who wrote together, but that each of them took independent, consecutive cracks at the script. Whose name is listed first could reflect anything from the order in which the writers were hired, to which writer contributed more substantially in the final product, to who has the greater clout, to alphabetical order, to “Let’s flip a coin.”


I’ve written about Aaron Sorkin before. I greatly admire his work, especially on The West Wing. His writing is smart and funny and clever and insightful. His characters feel human, and his dialogue sparkles with quatoability.

What I’ve noticed, however, is Sorkin’s repeated commitment to big-time bluffs in his storytelling.

In A Few Good Men, Sorkin anchors the bad guy’s argument for his criminal misbehavior in Cold War rhetoric – “You need us on that wall” – at a point in historical time when the actual Cold War is virtually over. Sorkin’s bluff is that we’ll forget that this isn’t “back then”, gambling that this anachronistic justification will satisfactorily serve as an explanatory rationale.

In The Social Network, Sorkin’s bluff is that the movie’s framework, a series of lawsuit deposition scenes, will mesmerize us into imagining that the movie is a taut, Law & Order-type courtroom wrangle, when, in fact, one side – the Mark Zuckerberg side – is ultimately told that he hasn’t got a chance, and that he should settle, which he does. This is like a western called Showdown, in which the whole movie is structured towards a climactic gunfight, until one gunfighter is told that the other gunfighter is faster than him, so he gets on his horse and leaves town. The End.

(Having leveled the “bluffing” charge, I will candidly – and perhaps contradictorily – admit that I have watched both A Few Good Men and The Social Network on numerous occasions, and look forward, especially in the case of A Few Good Men, to doing so again. Go figure.)

In Moneyball, Sorkin, I submit, is at it again. Only this time, the “bluffs” are multiple.

One: There’s the bluff that this is a sports movie, when it’s really a movie about change.

Two: There’s the bluff that the new system improved the Oakland A’s fortunes on the field, when, in fact, they did no better in the playoffs than they’d done the year before.

Three: There’s the bluff that we’ll be distracted away from the the real story, which is that, unlike football where the profits are shared equally between all the teams, baseball allows – nay, requires – poor teams to compete for the players’ services with rich teams, offering virtually no meaningful provisions that would promote parity.

Four: There’s the bluff that we will ignore the fact that we are being asked to root for statistical “bean counting” over experience, gut instinct and professional expertise, which is comparable to rejecting executives who respond to “idea pitches” viscerally in favor of movie grosses “Numbers Crunchers” screaming, “I want more of the stuff that makes money!”

Five: Moneyball wants us to believe that this new system works, citing, at its conclusion the success, not of the Oakland A’s, but of the Boston Red Sox, who, adopting the same player evaluating strategy, won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. What the movie intentionally leaves out is that the Boston Red Sox, simultaneously, had one of the highest payrolls in all of baseball.

Bringing us to the biggest bluff of all – Numero Six: The creation of a false “either-or” dichotomy, when the Red Sox conclusively proved that it can – and should be – a combination of both.

So there’s that.

On the other side, Moneyball offers an endearing, “star turn” performance by Brad Pitt, an Oscar-worthy portrayal of nerdy hyper-seriousness by Jonah Hill, and a beguiling debut by twelve year-old Kerris Dorsey, as the daughter.

Would I watch Moneyball again? Yes. Would I respond to the movie the same way I am drawn back to The Social Network and A Few Good Men? No.


Too many bluffs.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me six times, shame on me, me, me, me, me

And me.


Jewish New Year's wishes to those who participate. For the next ten days, as their future's are being determined, outsiders will see Jewish believers with concerned looks on their faces. Non-believers will also sport concerned looks, but their look involves the concern that they may be mistaken in not being believers. Atheists? Not a care in the world. But the price is - no holidays. Best wishes to all. Hedging my bets once again, I'm off to pray for my life.


M@ said...

Hey Earl, excellent post as always. I like how you've described Sorkin's bluffs -- you've put your finger on exactly what I've disliked about some films, especially those with good screenwriters like Sorkin and Mamet.

Mamet is similarly frustrating at times -- in some films, like Glengarry Glen Ross, he's near-perfect; in others, like the Spanish Prisoner, there are some bluffs but not enough to outweigh the overall effect of the film; in others, like Heist, there are just too many to allow me to enjoy the film.

On a related note, I'm wondering if you're familiar with Sorkin's first TV show, Sports Night, and if so, what do you think of it?

Earl Pomerantz said...

Re: Sorkin and "Sportsnight." I thought he was too good for the subject matter. On "The West Wing", on the other hand - just right.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you are drawn to writer's movies. Do you ever bother with the spectacle style films - all CGI and explosions?


Steve Zeoli said...

Enjoyed the "review," Earl. One comment: rich teams are rich because their fans support them and their owners understand that putting a good team on the field attracts money from the fans. Most poor teams are poor, because their owners want to pocket the profits without investing in the club. It's not exactly the class-warfare that your post sort of implies -- whether that's what you meant or not.

M@ said...

One comment: rich teams are rich because their fans support them and their owners understand that putting a good team on the field attracts money from the fans. Most poor teams are poor, because their owners want to pocket the profits without investing in the club.

Counter-example -- and I know Earl will be with me on this one: the Toronto Maple Leafs. Easily the richest club in the league, huge and loyal fanbase, near-sellout for many years, and not so much as an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals since 1967.

JED said...

One small correction. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. But your points about the Red Sox are right on - they used stats and money to build up the team.

Jim Dodd

Rebecca said...

Earl, according to Perez Hilton, westerns are making a comeback.

I know it's your favorite genre...maybe try a spec script?

Anonymous said...

Hey, interesting post. However, I'd like to point out that while a few good men was staged in 1989 and adapted to screen in 1992, they play itself is SET in summer of 1986. So the wall quote is accurate

Michael Pomerantz said...

Hi Earl,
Interesting post. I will have to incorporate this into regular reading. Happy New Year !!