by Steve Habrat
Believe it or not, I really enjoy sports films. Sports films usually follow a character that is completely engulfed in their art. Yes, I consider sports an art form. The athletes are there to entertain and often times inspire you. Sports lure out all different types of emotions from the athletes themselves, be it soaring happiness or the lowest form of defeat. Yet I always find myself in awe over their dedication to whatever it is they perform. There is also something about rooting for the underdog in these films, which usually borrow from real life events. It allows the viewers to believe in the idea of miracles and prove to us that hard work pays off. To some, it could suggest a higher power looking over the little guy or gal. These athletes will sacrifice their personal life, love, their sanity, and even their own sanctuaries—their bodies, all in the name of their art. I guess I can relate because I dedicate myself to movies completely. I will go to great lengths to see a movie I am infinitely excited about to the point where I will practically be collapsing from exhaustion at work the next day. I just had to see that midnight showing. I love it when people are overcome with a dedication to what they love. It to me means that they stand for something. For athletes and the people behind the scenes of the specific sport, they are dedicated to winning and an ultimate triumph. The victory symbolically wipes away any defeat they have suffered in the past.
Take Moneyball, the casual and self-assured new true-story sports film not about athletes themselves, but about the individuals who build baseball teams. Moneyball is about the ones who give themselves over completely to deliver wins and leave a legacy. We see countless scenes where characters sit around television screens and discuss a player’s form. They sit around tables and debate about what player has the ideal appearance for America’s favorite pastime. They fight with each other, feelings are hurt, and lessons are learned. It’s all in the name of what these men love. At the heart of all of it is Billy Beane (Played by Brad Pitt), who seems to be suffering from sleep deprivation behind a protruding bottom lip that is filled with chewing tobacco, sagging eyes, and a face that shows traces of Benicio del Toro. Beane is the GM (General Manager) of the Oakland A’s, who are in a scramble to rebuild their crumbling team after a crushing loss to the Yankees. They can’t compete with the salaries of teams like the New York Yankees, but boy, do they have heart and passion for their team. Beane travels to Cleveland, Ohio to discuss player trades with the Indians and during the meeting, notices a bright young number cruncher/player analyst named Peter Brand (Played by Jonah Hill, in one hell of a dramatic turn) who picks favorite players based on mathematics and science over form and physical appearance. Impressed by the young Peter, Billy hires him to devise a system to pick up gifted athletes without shelling out a huge sum of cash. As Beane tries to reinvent the scouting system and stacks his team with a group of misfit players, the experiment is met with criticism from those around Beane. As the experiment falls apart, Beane begins to reflect on decisions he made and grapples with the fact that he may loose his career over the gamble.
I’d be bluffing if I said I understood every word of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s well-spoken script. It fires off more sports vocabulary and trivia than I could keep up with. Sometimes, it sounded like Greek. It had the two friends I saw it with giddy by the little nods to sports history and player cameos (I should clarify that it is players depicted by actors. They knew instantly who they were. I just shook my head and smiled.). I was there for the story and I can say that I walked away satisfied, like Zaillian and Sorkin treated me with respect. They didn’t dumb the film down for viewers like me, which I extol. This is a sports fan movie. This is also a warm film, one that made me feel like I was sitting in on these conversations that were taking place. I felt like I was sitting in the room with them. The men stick chew in their lips, spit into cups, shift nervously and uncomfortably in their seats, and sometimes stumble through their dialogue like a real individual would. Everything seems so spontaneous. Never like it has been memorized. When Oscar comes calling, I hope it remembers Mr. Pitt and Mr. Hill. The dialogue flows from their lips with ease to the point where they ceased being Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and morphed into Billy and Peter. I loved it.
Much of Moneyball’s success rests on the shoulders of director Bennet Miller, who always makes the film disarming, even when it suffers from a few editing problems and a disregarded climax that feels barely there and insignificant. The film builds up to this one moment, and it quickly passes with weird fade-outs, and glum voice-overs from sports commentaries. Miller can construct a scene, but sometimes the editing stubs an emotional moment. His pacing is superb and he had my undivided attention, even if the film runs a bit too long. He also builds suspense nicely; especially during a ballgame sequence that will leave you feeling like one of the fans on the day the real game was played.
Moneyball boasts an A-list cast of seasoned vets who punch in some phenomenal acting. I could not get enough of Pitt’s Beane, whose love of baseball outweighs a rocky past of humiliation and regret. His past starts to bite him in the ass, and we can see the beads of sweat forming on his brow. It’s quite possibly his most humanistic performance, where for once he shakes off the viewer’s perception of him. Every film he is in, no matter whom he plays I always think “Hey! That’s Brad Pitt!” Not to say he is not a talented actor (the man plays some seriously eccentric chaps), but here he seems approachable and on our ordinary level. Hill gives one of the finest performances of his career, playing the diffident Peter who drools over every pitch thrown. I honestly bought his love for the game. There is a scene near the beginning of the film where he approaches the A’s stadium. Some of the stadium employees are pulling down hulking banners of their beloved players who have left the team. He stares up at the theater in amazement. Peter is bewitched by game. The music is quiet strums on an electric guitar as he gazes lovingly upon his new home. It’s such a magnificent scene. There is also the welcome presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s beer bellied coach who casts icy glares at Beane and goes against him at every turn to save his career. He’s a background character, but it is now Oscar season so it makes sense he would pop up in this, an Oscar contender.
Moneyball is just shy of greatness. For someone who is on the outside of sports, it’s one heck of a story. It also is an eye-opening encounter, as I never knew what went in to scouting baseball players. Like all sports films, it does try to tug the heartstrings with its underdog traits. Sadly, it’s weighed down by a dragging run time and a handful of scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s great to see a celebration of passion and dedication. A testament to those who will risk their reputation to stand by what they love. I just can’t help but smile when Beane admits that he does not do what he does because of money. In the end, it’s Pitt and Hill who become the MVPs of the film. They hit a few home runs, but I wish that the film would have stepped up and delivered a grand slam. Grade: B+