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“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game," a baseball scout says to a young Billy Beane in a flashback sequence in "Moneyball," one of this year's nine Best Picture nominees. "We just don’t know when that’s going to be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40. But we’re all told.”
A “sports movie” is designed to follow a now familiar trajectory. There is an underdog (be it a group or an individual), an obstacle, a struggle, a conflict, a sequence where we believe that our hero will be forced to retreat and finally a life-affirming moment of triumph.
What is so fascinating about “Moneyball” is that it simultaneously follows and shatters those standards. It fundamentally disagrees with the overarching messages of the majority of sports films (just as its central character fundamentally challenged the way the financial team-building game of baseball was played). Many traditional sports movies either overtly or inherently deliver the message that our worth can be discovered, confirmed or solidified in one moment of victory and/or within the framework of a shiny, easily identifiable skill -- even if that skill is simply strength of will.
“Moneyball” presents an image of the human experience that feels far more reflective of life, one in which we are, as Brad Pitt said in an interview with The Guardian, “a series of successes and failures,” who must make choices based on multiple and nuanced factors.
The other message of many sports films is that our worth ought to be reflected by outside markers to the degree that a loss of the prize in question would be an insurmountable tragedy. “Moneyball” reminds us of the times that we hit a home run and are so focused on the wrong thing that we don’t even know it.
Of course a major thematic core of the film is the idea that change, even when positive, healthy and necessary, is hard, dangerous and threatening to those who are currently benefiting from the status quo, or are simply too complacent to question it. In one of the film’s final sequences, Beane is told that “the first guy through the wall always gets a little bloodied.” Indeed, he must, because you cannot break apart a stagnant and flawed structure without doing a good deal of initial damage. That is true in government, business, cultural trends and embedded ideas.
Billy Beane, in a collaboration with a group of people (represented by Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand in the film), took an unfair system and restructured it using science and math, which is phenomenal in its own right. He also used the even more revolutionary idea that a team’s strength really can be found within the sum of its parts. Beane says “f-you” to the accepted way of viewing the game and its players by taking a motley crew of “misfit toys” whose worth had been missed, perhaps even by themselves for a time, and telling them to drop their egos in order to create something stronger than their individual limitations -- stronger, even, than many teams that focus their sights on the spectacle and showmanship of superstars.
A secondary theme in the film is actually posed as two questions: How do we value others? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we value ourselves?
“We want you badly and we think that this amount of money expresses that desire,” Beane is told as a teenager. The film utilizes the flashback sequences of his history as a player as a narrative motivator for his character’s present-day choices, but also as a thematic illustrator. His experience of being recruited as a young man and then failing to live into the theoretical promise of his potential demonstrates the damage that the kind of thinking the scouts were using can do to an individual. The larger tale presents a snapshot of how the game of baseball itself was affected.
The themes that “Moneyball” presents are universally relatable. It’s a film about more than just baseball (though it gives us an impressively easy-to-follow overview of the sport in our modern world). When we are young, we tend to look at people in categorical terms. They are either good or bad, worthy or not, friend or foe. We look for our own sense of self in external accolades and markers of success. If they are there, our egos are appeased. If there are times that they are not, well, we often have trouble reconciling ourselves to our lives. If we have failed to live out the fantasy version of our adult lives that we created, or that was presented to us, we may struggle to reform our identity.
We separate the merits of our fellow human beings by a rigidly defined hierarchical structure that simplifies and limits our real experience of the world. Moneyball (the strategy) takes a sophisticated approach to solving a seemingly insurmountable problem, but it also reevaluates the idea of value. “Moneyball” (the film) asks us to revisit our notion of value with the eyes of an adult who is experienced, perhaps a little worn and conscious that we as a culture have been caught in a cult of personality that limits our perspective to a degree that diminishes the majority of people to our own detriment.
In terms of craft, “Moneyball” is a beautiful, human, emotionally rich rendering of an extremely complex concept. We as the audience do not need to understand the minutiae of the mathematical equations that guided Beane’s ballsy and revolutionary approach, but we are given a sense of the logic. And the filmmakers took a property that was referred to as “un-adaptable” by the large majority of the industry (Michael Lewis’s book about the use of statistics in baseball) and translated it into a film that not only makes sense of an intricate problem-solving technique, but does so in such a way that real day-to-day humanity is not only brought forth but lauded.
I’ve already shared some of my thoughts on Brad Pitt’s performance. But having just watched “Moneyball” again, I am struck by the power of its naturalism. There is no moment where Billy Beane is forced to be other than who he is, to rise beyond his previous resistance and give the locker room version of the Gettysburg address. It is real and hilarious and strangely moving to see him awkwardly attempt to inspire his band of misfits, when the fact is, effusive speechifying is something he is simply incapable of. It over-strains the reaches of his patience for bullshit. He speaks in simple terms. He does what he feels is right. There is no hyperbolic shift for Billy Beane. There is him trying and doing the best he can with his own native and developed strengths and weaknesses.
There is never a moment in “Moneyball” where I am in doubt as to who Beane is or what he is feeling. There is clarity to Pitt’s emotional vulnerability and the commitment he has made to this role that is rare and worthy of recognition. He is not attempting to chew the scenery in a way that would demean the creature he has created. He respects the needs of the story.
As I’ve said previously, Pitt’s merits as an actor are often overlooked, misunderstood and underestimated. As such, he is in so many ways the perfect producer and star for this film. It's a film that challenges us to consider how we evaluate our own lives, how we calculate our own losses and wins and how we expect our "stats" to translate to a definitive measure of who we are.
“Moneyball” feels like it is dismissed a bit because it's pleasurable and because it is hard to categorize. It's not quiet, it's not really raw, it's not overly indicated, mannered and large and it's not forcibly restrained. It just resonates as human in a stunning way. It reminds me of the best parts of the films from the 1970s. It makes room for us to take it in. It does not rely on flash and it paints a portrait of dimensional and grown-up beings.
It is technically as worthy a film as any that are nominated. It demonstrates gorgeous if, again, easily missed craftsmanship, but more than that, there is something profound in the idea of this culture, at this time, taking a moment to celebrate life as something where we find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
"Moneyball" asks us to step beyond limited perspective and the children's game of spectacle and showmanship in order to honor hidden and untapped potential and depth. What could be a more applicable (and timely) Best Picture winner than that?
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