Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Ball Don't Lie

Baseball movies always work on some level. The stuff of drama is built into the very nature of the game: baseball is about failure. Think about it for a bit and you'll know I'm right. The best team in the majors this year will lose a third of its games. The best hitter in baseball will sit down two thirds of the time. Some baseball teams wear failure as a badge, whether it's the Chicago Cubs or the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox. To be a baseball fan is to be a masochist. If, as in football, winning is the only thing, then the most hated team in baseball would not be the New York Yankees, who are a symbol of outsized success (the Yankees, it should be noted, have won a quarter of all of the World Series ever played). It's even in the literature of the game. Mighty Casey strikes out. So does Roy Hobbs at the end of Bernard Malamud's The Natural (and nevermind the bullshit uplift of the movie version--it rings totally false). The best baseball movie ever made is Bull Durham, where Crash Davis ends his career with meaningless home runs in the minor leagues while dreaming of making into the bigs as a manager. I mention all of this, because it informs my reaction to Moneyball (2011, directed by Bennett Miller), a film about an outrageous success that ultimately ends in failure. That's baseball for you.

The story one finds in Moneyball follows Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, who is faced with a roster gutted by wealthier teams hiring their star players away. Other teams have much deeper pockets than the A's. The A's exited the 2001 playoffs at the hands of the Yankees, who are the poster child for the haves, while the A's represent the have-nots. Baseball, it should be noted, is very much an American sport in this regard, because the rich just keep getting richer. Beane listens to his scouts absently as they ply him with suggestions for their inevitable rebuilding, but none of them gets it. He has a quarter the resources of the big boys, and is looking for a way to play smarter with those resources. He finds it in Cleveland, where a trade that he's looking to execute is undone on the whisper of Peter Brand, a mousy economist who works as an analyst. Beane wants to know why he torpedoed the trade, and who he is. Brand, it seems, views baseball from a completely different perspective, one built on stats and probability. Beane, having nothing to lose, rebuilds the A's on this model, much to the chagrin of the pure baseball people in his clubhouse. As they resist him, their season goes down the toilet. Once Beane forces their hands, the A's embark on the most astonishing winning streak in the history of the game. Beane and Brand, it seems, are vindicated. Unfortunately, it still ends the way the previous season ended. They can play with the big boys over the long haul, it seems, but once the sample size shrinks, talent and money begin to outweigh stats. Beane views the whole exercise as a failure, but he's wrong, of course, because his methods have changed the game.

The movie itself is mesmerizing. In addition to baseball's romance of failure, this is a movie that's about the nuts and bolts of the way things work. Movies about work, like baseball movies, almost always work. There's something inherently fascinating about watching the minutiae of a profession one knows nothing about, and this movie provides a glimpse into the workings of baseball's front office, a place where fans never venture. Moneyball's visual scheme includes stats and math as a kind of punctuation to its ideas. It writes all of this large on the screen. There's an element of progress versus tradition here, too. This is a movie about technocrats who are imposing impersonal mathematics on a game that has always had an element of art to it.

If the movie has a drag, it's the emphasis on the personal life of Billy Beane. This is done with a series of flashbacks to Beane's career as a young player, which gives him some potted motivation to prove his scouts wrong. The movie also gives him a perfunctory family story in which he tries to remain connected to his daughter, who is living with Beane's ex-wife. These scenes are intended to soften the movie's hard edges, I suppose, but while they give Beane an added weight of desperation, they're not as interesting as the film's main concerns. The scenes where Beane walks into meetings filled with hostiles are charged with way more drama than these scenes. Brad Pitt, for his part, commits to all of the scenes he's asked to play as Beane. Pitt has aged into an interesting actor and I suspect he knows it. His last several roles have been fairly daring, the kind of roles that pretty boys who are losing their looks take on. This is one of his best roles. The camera's frame often frames Beane alone in dismal, workaday spaces. For a movie largely set in California, it's a surprisingly overcast film, but that's the Bay area, I guess, rather than el Lay.

This is a melancholy movie, as it should be. Again, that specter of failure hangs over the story being told here. The winning streak ends, of course. Beane is a disappointed man who doesn't feel his own vindication when it comes. And that makes for high drama.


J Luis Rivera said...

I truly loved this film. I think what I loved the most was the fact that Beane never really enjoyed his own success. I think that it would had betrayed the character if they had given him relief. He's a tortured soul from beginning to end. A masochist indeed.

Mykal Banta said...

I feel duty bound, as I always do, to argue in defense of The Natural. God, I love that film. I even love the part where Hobb's triumphant home run crashes into the lights and makes pure white fireworks. In fact, I especially love that part.

Hoky? Oh, hell yes. So was Homer's Iliad. Moneyball captures a very realistic sense of organizational and financial bureaucracy as well as a very, very hip sense of (as you mention) melancholy.

Ho fucking hum. Give me Roy Hobbs swinging for the fences any day.