Friday, September 30, 2011


Alternate Title:  The Agony of Defeat

One sentence synopsis:  The general manager of the Oakland A's turns to Sabermetric analysis to find a championship team he can afford.

Things Havoc liked:   Baseball is the great American pastime, and I am a great admirer thereof, particularly of my own home team, the San Francisco Giants. As a loyal Giants fan, not to mention a San Franciscan, I of course believe that everything even remotely related to Oakland, including their foul, diseased, putrid excuse for a baseball team (playing godless American League baseball, no less) should be summarily consigned to the lowest pit of Hell, where they shall be tormented by the devil with hellfire for ever and ever for the sin of having employed the Designated Hitter and thereby tarnishing the face of baseball for all time.

Er... sorry, where was I?

Er yes, the film. This is not a standard sports movie by any stretch of the imagination. For one thing, it's primarily about the back office. Brad Pitt plays A's general manager (and now minority owner) Billy Beane as a very rounded character, one whom I can easily see alongside the Steinbrenners and La Russas and the other lunatic personalities that baseball seems to generate. The movie focuses on him as general manager, a role entirely different from the manager (played in this case by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), one concerned with the details of personnel acquisition, high pressure player trades, and scout management. More time is spent looking at spreadsheets and computer models than at baseball players playing baseball. Pitt's character doesn't even watch the games.

Indeed, this movie is almost single-minded in its overturning of the general cliches of the sports movie genre. The players are shown almost as an afterthought (with the exception of Scott Hatteberg, an injured catcher-turned-first baseman whom the A's are able to pick up because nobody else wants him). No rag-tag team of plucky all-stars here, but a bunch of soulless, interchangeable parts, picked up and released without so much as a question. What we see therefore resembles more of a collectible card game than Field of Dreams, as managers call one another and enact byzantine strategies to outmaneuver one another for the players they think are undervalued. The movie takes what seems to be pathological delight in completely dispensing with notions of "fundamentals", "intangibles", "scout wisdom", or "small ball", all concepts that are usually used to give the plucky, ragtag group of movie baseball misfits a fighting chance against the big bad soulless ball team.

And yet, surprisingly, this doesn't make the film unwatchable, far from it. The focus instead is on Beane and on his assistant general manager, Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill in easily the best performance I've ever seen out of him). Brand is a 25-year old Yale-educated economics student, who also happens to be a fat baseball statistics nerd. Yet he brings an absolute conviction to his belief that baseball in general is doing it all wrong, valuing (and thus, rejecting) players for subjective reasons that have nothing to do with their actual performance. Through Brand, the movie throws massive amounts of data at us, but never in a fashion that feels infodumpish or bewildering, and the core tenet that teams are buying players when they should be buying wins, is one that underlies everything that these people do.

The effect is very weird, turning everything we normally see in a sports movie on its head. The plucky misfit players become almost background noise, the wise, sagely coach becomes the antagonist who nearly derails the team for the sake of his future employability. The sports commentators vilify our heroes when the system doesn't work, and credit the useless manager when the sabermetric analysis pays off with an unprecidented 20-game winning streak. And all that time, the penny-pinching, numbers-obsessed capitalistic moneyball players are our heroes.

And yet it works, more or less. Pitt and Hill deliver effective, realistic performances, as do many of the more minor characters (including, of all people, Robert Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard, playing the owner of the A's). The movie generates investment for the idea that these people are working with, rather than for the players or the coaches. And somehow, none of this takes away from the majesty of the game itself. When the A's pull of their streak, it's no less effective than in any other well done sports movie. The movie looks the moneyed aspects of baseball in the eye, and still comes away with a love of the game.

Things Havoc disliked:  This movie is almost perverse in its focus, relentlessly, on failure, loss, and lack of success. We see many games in the film, almost all of them from the period when the system wasn't working, and nearly none from the period when it was. An even more pressing example is that the one game we focus on clearly. In this game, the A's take an 11-0 lead, and then lose it, returning to 11-11, before finally winning with a walk-off home run 12-11. We do not see any of the A's runs to take their lead, but we watch in abject, well-shot detail as they lose it, run by run, before an almost perfunctory victory sequence that glosses over their record 20th consecutive victory by following it up instantly with a lengthy speech indicating how it doesn't matter at all.

I don't mind that they want to turn sports movie cliches around, but the movie is so single-minded about showing us nothing but loss and failure that it becomes very awkward to watch, ironically because it's shot so well. This obsession spills over into the rest of the film as well. Even when people aren't on the field, we hear nothing about them except that they are going to fail, have failed, or have succeeded, but that their success doesn't matter because they're going to fail at something else. It's not maudlin or campy, but it does get old.

Finally, I have to say, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is an excellent actor, simply does not do well in this role. His manager's an antagonist, I understand, but unlike the antagonistic scouts, the film doesn't give him an opportunity to make his case, instead simply having him hamfistedly refuse to play the new players and to adopt the new style for no reason other than blockheadedness. I can see why the real Art Howe had nothing good to say about this movie.

Final thoughts:  This is a very strange film, and a hard one to rate, frankly, as the tone and the writing are simultaneously very skillful and very subversive. Overall though, baseball fan as I am, I was entertained and fascinated by this look into the backrooms of the great pastime, and both Pitt, who is not my favorite actor, and Hill, whom I have never seen before, sell their roles really well in it. Hoffman's a letdown, and the emphasis is really too grim for a movie that's supposed to be about sport and a team that, frankly, was a great and shocking success, but the movie still tells quite an interesting story, and might be worth a look even if baseball isn't your particular thing.

Oh, and fuck the A's. And Oakland.

Final Score:  7/10

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