Thursday, 8 September 2011

TIFF '11 - MONEYBALL


"It's unbelievable how much you don't know about the game you've been playing all your life" - Mickey Mantle

The inspirational baseball tale is as well known to Americans as the story of the prairie settling family is to any film appreciating Canadian. Both conjure images of a different time, a lofty and inspirational moment suspended in dazzling slow motion alongside nearly misguided hopes and dreams. Where the latter often dwells on the harshness of the seasons, the former pits its hero(es) against an agonizing slew of obstacles that prevent them from achieving fame, glory, or simply proving themselves with a brazenly fought loss. From Field of Dreams to Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield to The Sandlot, someone begins down in the dumps and, like a true Wagnerian tragedy, overcomes most or every one of their pratfalls to become adored for that everlasting snapshot of glory. It’s interesting then that a film aiming to change this formula, both thematically and functionally, does so in a fashion that still plucks at the heartstrings of even the most grizzled ‘inspiratiopic” viewer (my term, one that applies itself to those feel-good films that drag you through the wide range of emotions before letting you off the hook). The result is a film that changes the game both within its plot and surrounding its functional production.

First, let’s emphasize the baseball clichés that must exist regardless of formal experimentation. To begin, we have plenty of shots of the lonely protagonist. Intimately framed from a medium shot to a full blown close-up, Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is a sly glance away from evoking the youthfully hesitant stare of Robert Redford in The Natural. Next is the film’s use of powerful and evocative music. In this film’s case, a recurring orchestral motif composed by Mychael Danna snuggles up closely to the sweetest parts of This Will Destroy You’s wonderful “The Mighty Rio Grande” to elicit the bone-numbing shivers necessary for those slack-jawed How Are They Going To Make It Through This Tension? moments. To double check this list, the film has the three essential ingredients to make this a successful baseball inspiratiopic: It intimately and quietly captures its characters as they fall and rise, it imbues these scenes with a powerful score/soundtrack to evoke powerful emotions from the viewer and, most importantly, features some spectacular plays of the sport it is concerned with. All of the ingredients are apparent, but what makes Moneyball so special – a film that I will rigorously defend until all of its Oscar nominated glory – is its own guts and bravery.

Comparing the picture to the mighty Mickey Mantle’s quote used at the beginning of Bennett Miller’s film and this review, it’s both shocking and refreshing to see how little we as viewers knew about the baseball epic we’ve seen countless times before. While I’m hesitant to draw too much attention to the screenwriting team, especially after last year’s heaps of praise over the expertly written Social Network, the writing team of Steven Zaillian and Network’s Aaron Sorkin (working from a story by Stan Chervin that was adapted from Michael Lewis’ novel Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game) nail a script that focuses on the many peaks and valleys of their kind but flawed protagonist (the GM initially refuses to become friendly with the players on his misfit team because it will be easier on him when he inevitably has to trade or cut them).

For all its talk of formulas and statistical analysis, the plot is a relatively tried and tested one. Pitt plays the general manager of a team who can’t afford to keep its star players. Underfunded and financially bullied by bigger and more fiscally viable teams, Pitt’s answer to winning a championship arrives in the form of a recently graduated Yale economics student (played with realistic hesitance by a completely rejuvenated Jonah Hill, bouncing back from the underwhelming Cyrus) who sees potential in the big leagues’ most undervalued players. Where this hitter really hits the money, however, is in its restrained direction and extraordinary performances.

Completely avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump, Capote director Bennett Miller recycles some of that film’s techniques to change and revitalize a tired sports genre. Chronology slips from past to present without so much as a blink of an eye, while much of the action is filmed on video shown via television screens or off-screen sound. Due to this the bulk of the movie hinges on its actors and, especially in the case of Pitt, they succeed in not only conveying the pain and endurance required to climb in any fashion related to the sport, but prove to the uninitiated that they really are actors. Now, this isn’t to say that Brad Pitt was ever a bad actor, but Moneyball simply cements his status as an auteur. Both his and Hill’s performances are astute and an absolute pleasure to watch. It is also nice to see the imperfections in dialogue.

Perhaps rebounding from the allegations of ‘too perfectly iterating teenagers’ in David Fincher’s Social Network, Sorkin and co. have a script that illustrate the difficulties of expressing oneself, and watching characters flub a line or two in a fashion we’d expect to hear someone talk is refreshing. It’s also pretty cool to see Spike Jonze acting in a film again.

All in all, don’t listen to the doomsayers. Sure, Moneyball is hyped, but it’s for perfectly legitimate reasons. This is already in this blog’s Oscar radar for a reason.
(3.5/4)

1 comment:

  1. In this book Lewis gives the reader a look inside the art of sabermetrics, a relatively new science surrounding the staistics of baseball, and how it was first adopted by a real team. Perfect summer reading for baseball fans.

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