Moneyball Review: Seasons of Discontent

How do you take a book that has little center narrative and turn it into a prestige film?  You don't, or so the traditional thinking goes.  Moneyball doesn't have the advantage of a built-in sob story like the Blindside, and it doesn't have America's Sweetheart, Sandra Bullock, starring in it.  It was made for what could probably cover the craft services of the last Transformers movie.  It was barely made at all.

Moneyball as an idea has been so ingrained in the baseball narrative since the book came out that it is a bit hard to remember what it was like before the book.  It has existed as an idea, an ideology, a way of life, an abomination.  Could the story be seen with fresh eyes?  Or would it be caught up in the larger than life franchise of Moneyball?

Moneyball is a baseball movie as seen through the lens of a truly great filmmaker.  Given the huge success of the book it isn't hard to imagine the sort of lazy film that could have been made.  It was a long process to get it made, one that made it seem like the movie would never be made at all.  Even after they started filming, there was no guarantee the movie would be any good.  In a way the making of the film reflects one of the central themes of the film: no one can predict the future, so don't put a value on it.

It's a surprisingly dark film.  Yes, there are moments of true joy, and some laugh aloud moments.  You grip the edge of your seat in some surprisingly tense scenes, such as when the camera goes inside the GM's office as Billy Beane plays phone tag in an attempt to swindle another team out of a player.  But overall there is a darkness to the movie, both in tone and the visual.

Bennett Miller, the director, filmed quite possibly the best looking movie featuring baseball.  He amply used natural light to frame his characters, used archival footage and sound manipulation to great effect, and edits the whole package into a wonderfully crafted film.  His camera use felt natural and never a hinderance or distraction from the characters.  When it was announced the film would be rewritten by Aaron Sorkin, I imagined a fast talking baseball pic where smart people talk about numbers for 2 hours.  If that was in the original script, then Miller wisely fills the film with as much pauses and silence as possible, allowing it to breathe in and out with the rhythm of the story.

What a story it was.  I'm sure if you've read the book, or heard anyone talk about it, or even just simply watched baseball during 2002, you know basically what happened.  And the movie is on the surface about the 2002 season.  It only uses that as a vehicle to touch on numerous themes in its complex, fictionally main character of Billy Beane.  Beane is a man obsessed with proving that he can live up to predictions, while trying to hold on to his private life.  If I write it out the story probably doesn't seem all the interesting or compelling.  Credit the actors, the writers, the director, and everyone involved with getting the film out.

It’s ultimately a film about disappointment, and learning to deal with it.  There was no happy ending for the 2002 Oakland Athletics, just like there is no happy ending for the film version of Billy Beane.  Why does he reject the Red Sox job, and stay in Oakland?  He can’t accept his own value.  Moneyball is just as much about Beane being a loser at playing baseball, as it is about him being a loser at being a husband, a father, and person.  It doesn't lay it on thick, but it's obvious that Beane doesn't think highly of himself, even if others do. 

I hesitate to say more, for fear of ruining the movie.  Yes, you know the story.  The story isn't the point.  It's how the film was made, the surprising emotional impact even though you know exactly how this thing will end.  

It is a movie superficially about baseball.   I believe if you’re obsessed with the game, there is quite a bit to enjoy that others won’t catch.  But its success lies in the fact that Moneyball is a great movie.  I didn’t go into the theater hoping for anything, but I can heartily recommend it.  Moneyball is worth the hype.

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