Sunday, October 2, 2011

Working out the numbers

Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is a highly enjoyable movie, and a sure crowd-pleaser (as long as the crowd can process a creation with lots of talk, no violence, no sex, and barely any profanity). It portrays the real-life story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beame, trying to put together a competitive 2002 season against teams outspending him on payroll by four to one; unable to entice the best players, he starts reexamining that whole notion of “the best,” concluding he can build a winning team out of players rejected or at least undervalued by all the other teams. This generates a lousy start to the season, followed by a remarkable turnaround, although – and this is hardly a spoiler – not the kind of fairy tale level of remarkable that would have them winning the World Series. In fact, the ending is influenced much more by a sense of compromise and personal limits than of triumph.

Insiders vs. outsiders

The film is based on Michael Lewis’ influential 2003 book. I didn’t read it, but Wikipedia summarizes some of the themes like this: “insiders vs. outsiders (established traditionalists vs. upstart proponents of sabermetrics (that is, a statistical driven approach), the democratization of information causing a flattening of hierarchies, and the ruthless drive for efficiency that capitalism demands.” Only the first of these is particularly evident in the film, played largely for comic effect as Beame dismisses the conventional wisdom of his ancient-looking scouting team – for example, they write off one prospect in part because he has an ugly girlfriend, thus denoting a lack of confidence – in favour of cold hard facts: who cares if a particular player has a funny stance, or fades in the second half of the game, as long as he reliably delivers a proportionate share of what it takes to win the necessary percentage of games?

This tells you, of course, that Moneyball is really about underdogs, one of those emblematic sports movies where it doesn’t matter if you like or even understand the game: I can testify to this because I wouldn’t watch baseball if it was the last distraction remaining on earth (now there’s an idea for a horror flick). It’s a particularly admirable achievement in this case because the movie necessarily focuses so much on the specific nuts and bolts. You suspect a lot of the credit goes to co-writer Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for a similar feat last year with The Social Network: I wrote here that “I don’t know if any film has ever conjured up as much excitement from reams of incomprehensible programming talk.” Moneyball is aiming to be pleasant more than exciting, but otherwise it’s a comparable achievement, as far as that aspect of it goes.

Demands of capitalism

As I mentioned though, this means the film doesn’t spend much time on the “democratization of information causing a flattening of hierarchies” (often, I suspect, something that’s written about more than it’s actually evidenced), and the “ruthless drive for efficiency that capitalism demands.” Admittedly, you can’t blame a Hollywood picture for turning its back on such heavy themes. Still, it means it’s pretty easy to forget the film as soon as it’s over. The breakdown of the old industrial model might be one of the most significant themes of our time – business just doesn’t seem to need as many people as it once did to generate growth and profits (worse, the profitability is largely based on not having them), and since consumers and governments are tapped out, no one knows how to create enough of those well-paying non-geeky geographically-dispersed jobs.

Moneyball isn’t inherently about that issue of course, but it does embody something of the tension between advancing knowledge and its human cost. As the movie depicts him, Beame is highly ambivalent about baseball: he’s devoted much of his life to it, but he doesn’t actually watch the games, and is obviously unsentimental about its traditions. This makes him a perfect person to lead the revolution, but at the same time, you could view him as an unwitting tool of owners trying to get a job done at bargain basement prices. Even if his methods worked perfectly – which they don’t; he’s remained with the team for the subsequent decade without topping the achievements of 2002 – where would it ultimately lead? If there’s no more romance and sense of individual greatness, then how does anything ever really get better?

Money Never Sleeps

The movie’s original director was Steven Soderbergh, who reportedly had something more analytical in mind: for instance, his version would have featured interviews with real-life people (it’s a bit of a shame to think we might have missed out on a sports movie with the ambiance of Soderbergh’s current film Contagion). Bennett Miller, whose only previous film was Capote, doesn’t seem like such an ambitious thinker, but having settled on his strategy, he sees it through more than smoothly. I may have left it late in the review to address the most salient fact for many viewers, that Brad Pitt plays Billy Beame, and well enough that they’re saying he might even get an Oscar for it. It’s classic old-time movie acting, of the kind that seems easy but undoubtedly isn’t; Pitt creates a rounded character without any of the mannerisms, emotional props or narrative contrivances that often seem to signal award-worthy performances. One scene, where he places a series of rapid-fire calls to other general managers, trying to move multiple pieces so that a player he wants becomes available, is a free-wheeling classic, even evoking Cary Grant and Howard Hawks.

Jonah Hill plays the economics graduate who originally turns Beame onto this new way of things, and then becomes his assistant. He doesn’t have to do much more than follow Pitt around and respond to him in a small voice, but it’s enough. The film really doesn’t have a dull moment, and given that the topic is baseball, I suppose that must be even higher praise than it sounds like.

Another money movie: a few days before watching Moneyball, I caught up with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel from last year, Money Never Sleeps. This is an odd creation for sure, trying to tap the old magic of Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko character (as the movie begins, getting out of jail after eight years) while grappling with new paradigms and uncertainties; it’s a glitzy but lumpy amalgam, sometimes shrewdly illustrating how complicated things actually work, at other times succumbing to absurd melodrama. It’s not so much that it bites off more than it can chew; it chews a bit, swallows a bit, leaves you confused about how much it bit off in the first place. But for a film grappling with something as imperfect and frightening as the capital markets, maybe that’s how it should be.

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