“Moneyball,” A Review

Baseball, says one sports commentator, has to be won “on the field.” He goes on to comment: “You have to steal. You have to punt. You have to sacrifice. You have to have men in a scoring position. You gotta bring ’em in.”

“You don’t do that with a bunch of statistics,” he continues. Later on in the film, another sports pundit repeats a variation on that same theme: “You don’t put a team together with a computer.”

Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, thought otherwise in 2002. In Bennet Miller’s film, “Moneyball,” Beane would become American baseball’s game changer when he hires a Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand, a young, overweight self-deferential-to-a-fault geek. Brand specializes in “player analysis.”

Brand has a kind of basic-math philosophy about winning: “Your goal should be to buy wins, not players,” he says. “In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.” Brand hones in on the faulty approach teams have used to choose players. He confides in Beane that too many teams get sidetracked by the “perceived flaws” of players—their personalities, their attitudes, their ages. (Beane would later hire replacements, who “get on base” but who also have some of those flaws.)

Desperately trying to figure out a way to hire replacements on a non-competitive budget, Beane hires Brand whose statistical scrutiny of players’ “on-base” percentages would eventually be the new gold standard, defying all the experts in the early 2000s. The new model for this analysis would be called sabermetrics, a paradigm that would revolutionize the baseball industry.

As the film begins, Beane and Brand have to face a skeptical group of Oakland scouts who are reviewing potential replacements. Three of the team’s crucial players were bought out by big-market teams.

The scouts have been steeped in their own philosophy of choosing players who can replicate the exact skills of the players they’re replacing, but at much lower salaries. They are also steeped in the very personality-and-appearance criteria Brand indicated as part of the sport’s “epidemic” failure to effectively evaluate players:

Ugly girlfriend means no confidence. Ball pops off the bat. Attitude is good. His dick has been there two minutes before he walks into the room. He passes the eye-candy test.

The scouts are the team’s good ol’ boys. In their wind-breakers, golf shirts, receding hair lines, low-hanging jowls, and tired faces, they are the behind-the-scenes male establishment—the confident, serious, over-the-hill insiders who inhabit the world of the-way-things-were.

Beane and Brand are about to change that.

In a tense confrontation with the scouts, Beane overrides them. He tells them that he is hiring undervalued players, all of whom have impressive base-percentage scores. They all know how to “get on base.” But they all have those “perceived flaws,” the very handicaps that the scouts remind Bean have kept them out of any high-stakes competition—Chad Bradford, a relief pitcher, has an unconventional low pitching style; David Justice is thirty-six; Scot Hatterberg has irreparable nerve damage in his elbow; and Jeremy Giambi is a partier who hangs out at strip clubs.

Beane remains unmoved by the scouts’ outcry. He surrenders to Brand’s sabermetrics approach: the statistical analyses of the players’ on-base percentages. It is in those statistical percentages that Brand believes lie the real and objective evidence for the team’s future success.

The film’s central narrative is dominated by the Oakland team’s slow evolution into a record-breaking twenty-wins-in-a-row season, using Brand’s sabermetrics approach. But it is a pyrrhic victory. They go on to lose in the playoffs.

Beane is offered a twelve-million dollar contract with the Boston Red Sox but turns it down. Two years later, the Red Sox win their second World Series in nearly a century, “embracing the philosophy championed in Oakland,” the film tells us in the final credits.

Billy Beane, of course, would continue his attempts at winning the “last game” of the season with his home team, the only goal that would ever satisfy him.

Bennet Miller’s film is its own game changer. I don’t believe I have ever seen a sports-genre film that is dominated by so many small interior spaces. Most of the frames are inside offices, board rooms, a music store, living rooms, a locker room, a hallway, a dining room, an underground parking lot, several scenes with Beane or Brand staring at a television set or in front of a computer. I haven’t done my own statistical analysis, but I think it would be safe to say that the number of shots of on-field activities were kept at a minimum.

All of these small-framed scenes reveal Bennet’s unique psychological edge he gives to this sports genre film. It is not that Bennet can’t do an outdoor scene. The tense on-field coverage leading to the record breaking twentieth game certainly had its intense crowd scenes—wide-angle scans of energized fans, groups holding up banners, an entire stadium jumping up at a home run, ear-piercing screams as a player glides into home-base, or even the desperate fatigue of the fans at the twentieth game.

And Miller is very adept at building the tension of the games leading up to the final record breaker, which was its own cliff-hanger when Kansas City ties the game at the top of the ninth. The bull-pen manager chooses Scot Hatterberg as the first player up to bat. Hatterberg’s first hit, a home run, clinches the win for the Athletics.

Miller puts many of the frames of the twentieth game in slow motion with a hauntingly dark musical underscore of cellos and violins. His direction is carefully processed to convey the psychological tension and as an aesthetic way of holding on to a frame to lessen any possibility of it being trivialized by its brevity.

But it is in the smaller, more interior spaces that Bennet’s direction reveals its genius.

I knew from one of the opening scenes that the film was going to be an exception to the rule of a sports-genre film. Right after Beane has ended a negotiating session with the Cleveland Indians’ general manager, he rushes through the main office trying to track down Brand.

The camera focuses in on Brand looking over the top edge of his computer as he follows Beane across the office. It is a masterpiece of controlled tension. Brand’s eyes are anxious, suspicious, and, obviously afraid. And they are the eyes of a loner, a private, self-contained guy not used to being intruded upon.

Throughoutmost of the film, Brand is situated in a confined space. When Beane calls Brand up to offer him a contract, Miller places Beane in a small austere bedroom with a print of Plato over his bed. As Brand enters the Athletics’ stadium to his new job, Miller carefully follows Brand’s isolating walk down one of the stadium’s dark winding tunnels.

In most of the other scenes in which Brand is placed, Miller is careful to objectify Brand’s less-than-expansive nature by constantly putting him in front of a computer, in front of a desk, or in an office chair having a conversation with Beane. And he is usually dressed in a conservative button-down shirt and tie, a sports coat and khaki pants—all manifestations of Beane’s bland world of computer stats and mathematical models.

Bennet Miller highlights the interior nature of his narrative in Beane’s character. Beane is a loner. As a young, up-and-coming major league star, he chose to give up a full scholarship to Stanford to sign a lucrative contract with the New York Yankees. Over a nine-year period, Beane was never able to reach star status. It is the scar of that failure that lingers through his entire career as a general manager of the Oakland Athletics.

It is that failure that gives him the spark to try something different with his losing team. Beane has the fire-in-the-belly determination to take a risk. And he does it as a kind of rebellious speculator willing to go against the grain of received wisdom.

Even after he hires Brand, he still chooses to stay in the locker room watching the televised coverage of the games. Or he gets into his pickup and listens to the radio coverage in brief segments. But he still refuses to hang out with the team in the bull pen during any of the games. He justifies his detachment to Brand, telling him that he can’t get close to the team because there is always the risk of having to let players go.

Miller has a keen eye for visual images that mirror the loner prototype in Beane. The camera catches that isolation in stark side-angle frames of Beane’s face in the pickup, catching all the levels of his private reactions. Or Miller places the camera in dark locker-room shots of Beane watching the games on a small screened television, a stark isolated Hopper-like figure, blankly staring at an illuminated box.

Even when Beane arrives at his ex-wife’s ocean-side house, the psychological tension between Beane and his ex-wife’s husband is kept on a tight leash as the characters dance around the tension until Beane quietly asserts his dominance by cutting off the discussion about his twelve-year old daughter having a cell-phone. “Her mother and I will discuss it.” Case closed.

Miller continues his mastery of the small interior spaces throughout the film. When Beane has his many conflicts with Art Howe, the manager, over the manager’s contract, the hitting lineups, or the players’ positions, all the scenes are kept in hallways or enclosed offices.

When Beane arrives, unannounced at Scot Hatterberg’s house to offer him a contract, Miller prepares the scene with Hatterberg, an unemployed player, lounging in a chair watching television as his wife looks up from the dining room table quietly going over the bills scattered over the table.

The scenes between Beane and his daughter are also placed in minimalist settings—a kitchen, a bay window of a music store, or a small section of an airport.

All of these small framed scenes reinforce Bennet Miller’s signature stamp on the film. He definitely wanted to give the film a very introspective edge, while at the same time, adding a level of intimacy, unusual in a sports film.

That intimacy becomes more evident in several dominant emotional narratives. One of those narratives happens in Miller’s portrayal of the relationship between Beane and his daughter. She consistently worries about the possibility of her father losing his job. Beane has to keep reassuring her. At the end of the film, when he decides to return to Oakland rather than take a twelve million general manager’s position with the Boston Red Sox, he listens to the CD of her song to him.

“I’ve gotta just let it go, slow it down,” she sings. In the final musical affirmation of her father as a “loser,” Beane takes some comfort in knowing that he has taken the more personal, but less money-driven journey back to his home team.

The other emotional narrative happens when Beane decides to become more engaged with the team. He walks through the locker room offering words of encouragement. And he has an edgy, but personal conversation with David Justice, the aging former superstar. Beane embarrasses Justice into being more of a team leader.

His relationship with Art Howe takes an interesting twist when Howe decides to make Hatterberg the first hitter in the bottom of the ninth inning with a tie score at the crucial twentieth game. When Hatterberg hits a home run, winning the game, it is clear that Howe made his own amends to Beane by choosing a hitter Howe originally had no confidence in.

Brand is given one of the touching roles at the end of the film when he tries to convince Beane that Oakland’s twenty-wins-in-a-row record breaker was definitely an accomplishment. That scene happens just after Oakland loses in the West Division playoffs. “I think you won pretty big, Billy,” Brand says to him. Billy is not convinced but it is clear that Brand and Beane’s relationship has evolved into a much closer friendship.

“Moneyball” is definitely not an action film. It is not driven by any big-screen mania. Nor does it suffer from the kind of muscularity and kinesics that Hollywood loves to display for a Saturday-afternoon Multiplex cinema crowd.

Miller’s film is thoughtful.  It is intimate. Hopefully, it will become a sports-film classic.

Namasté

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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