Moneyball is apparently a film about a revolution, as the archival voice overs ceaselessly remind us, but it’s not a revolutionary film in of itself and this is the biggest mark in its L column. At first glance its story seems entirely as expected from the baseball genre: a group of – literally – undervalued misfits form the ultimate underdog team and together they defy expectations by sticking it to the big dogs in the big league. Where Moneyball differs from the league of derivative titles available in the genre is in the reason behind the unlikely victories; they don’t win because their players have more heart than the opposition, nor do they pull off the upset because of their purer intentions. Perhaps these traits do factor into things, but we really wouldn’t know based solely on this film – and my knowledge of baseball and the Oakland A’s is basically based solely on this film – because for the most part it doesn’t give a damn about the players, nor for that matter is it overly interested in Baseball as a whole. No, this film’s only in it for the money.
This kind of clinical attitude is inherent in the core of the Moneyball concept – which loosely reads as buying runs rather than players using statistical formulas based on player economy. So yeah, inherently riveting stuff – and its also what both distinguishes and destroys this film. Aside from the three name stars the cast seems mostly constructed of amateur actors and possibly even real baseball personalities, normally this could be a problem, as the acting ability of such people is likely to be sub-par,however in this case its no big deal because aside from the two biggest names – sadly Jonah Hill is probably a bigger name than Hoffman – no-one is really asked to actually play a character. For the majority of the movie the Oakland players are simply names and numbers, it’s really only when they are brought in to be informed of their imminent departure, having been either cut or traded, that they are actually given a face; so deep is their commodification. This is a fascinating approach sure and one that authentically reflects the feeling of moneyball, but if the GM doesn’t give a damn about these guys than how can we?
Robert Redford’s Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane is a perfectly pure example of the phenomenological phenomenon that lies at the heart of moneyball, the concept and the film. When he’s speaking he is in his element – on the phone, playing god with American heroes – and in these scenes he is simply stunning to watch, his words as gripping as gunshots. Where he falls apart as a protagonist though is in his actions. The very same attitude that allows him to make these bold moves as the A’s GM is also what makes him an utterly alien character to us. The man doesn’t even watch his own team’s games, because to him they are almost periphery to the point. This is not however to say that he doesn’t care about them, the opposite in fact, he cares too much and the reason for this is made clear in the perfectly poignant string of flashbacks that is scattered throughout the film. This dichotomy is interesting yes, but its not involving. We want to care for the character but he keeps us at a distance at all times and since he is out point of perspective he is then also keeping us at a distance from the film as a whole.
This distance, this coldness would be fine were something else given to us in the place of emotion, but nothing substantial enough is ever offered up to counterbalance this loss. The film constantly hammers home the fact that this move towards moneyball was a revolution in baseball but it barely ever tells us what this thing that’s having an impact actually is; we are told again and again of the impact of placing people second to science but never, specifically, is this science actually explained. Now there is a good chance that as a Baseball novice I wouldn’t have understood a single word of this further explanation, but it would have been nice to have it anyway – in much the same way that it was nice for Contagion to talk above us rather than down to with its WHO lingo and bacteriology – because this is the sole chance to tell this story, they can’t rightly write a sequel. Sure there is some appeal to the Friday Night Lights ‘You don’t need to know anything to enjoy this’ approach but as it stands the film is all sledgehammers with no subtlety and that’s just not a balanced team.
This contrarian construction is seemingly due to the mid-production shift in creative control. Steven Soderbergh, perhaps the only director simultaneously stylish and cerebral enough to both show and sell the statistical focus at the core of this story, was, somewhat ironically, dropped in favour of safer bet Bennet Miller, who does do an admirable but utterly mainstream job of directing the picture. One wanted to make something entirely experimental, the other something soft and within tradition and the resulting mixture is something of a mess.
The movies saving grace comes in the introduction of Oscar winning Screenwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin (actual title, he insists on it), the one upside to the shake up. Sorkin brings with him him famous predilection for witty banter and you can hear which scenes he re-wrote because they sing. The back and forth between Beane and his assistants, him and his recruits (the Chris Pratt signing is the strongest scene in the film by far) and him and his receiver – the phone, not the position – are all quit simply brilliant and it is this that redeems the film, lifting it above the mediocre middle ground that it otherwise would have occupied.
Baseball movies traditionally exist to evoke pleasant emotions in otherwise unexcitable members of the middle-class, to quite literally please the crowd, but the moral of this story and the anticlimactic ending that it is attached to both exist only to please the parochial statistics nerd. It’s a story of facts triumphing over the human spirit, and even then it is a pretty limp undertaking. These two goals are almost immiscible and so attempting to succeed in both as this film does is equivalent to suicide by proxy. We aren’t fully entertained by their story because we barely care about its outcome, how can we when it is happening to numbers and letters but not characters? We’re also not properly educated by the film because it spends so much time establishing rote beats of paternal beauty and their like. Moneyball aims for the top, attempting a revolution of its own but it hasn’t run the numbers and so its risk never really pays off. The movie certainly has its moments of glory and there is a streak towards the end that almost brings it over the line but the lack of direction cuts it off at the line. Moneyball could quite easily have been a masterpiece had it focused on being either one film or the other, but in the end it couldn’t choose between the two and as we know people only care about what happens in the end.