Thanks to Hanspostcard for inviting me to be a part of this movie bonanza! I was most pleased to take part in a similar event Slicethelife ran last summer and fall, which dealt with record albums.
Now while that one was easy to me – I don’t want to be a big braggard, but I have been a pretty serious music fan since I was a child and think I’m probably a bit more knowledgeable about artists and their works than a casual radio listener – this one could be a little bit of a challenge. I’m no Siskel or Ebert or Hollywood insider. But, like most people I watch movies and know what I like and what I don’t. So I don’t start out by claiming my list will be the ultimate list of the ten or twelve finest films ever created. Instead, I’m just going to fill you in on a movie per category that appeals to me and that has stood up to repeated viewings for me.
As Hans has noted by now, he’s chosen a dozen genres or types of movies for us to pick from (one per category), and I decided to start with “Sports”. There was no hidden meaning in it being the first pick, by the way. I’m not trying to count down from my most favorite to least or vice versa. This one just came to mind since I watched it recently and it’s a great representative of the category.
Anyhow, I am a bit biased because I am a huge baseball fan (some of you might even read my MLB blog), but I always feel like there are more good movies about baseball than all the other major American sports combined. Perhaps because it’s a part of the nation’s heritage and the “national pastime”. But there’ve been a lot of good ones through the past three or four decades . Many of them look at the struggles of individual players, real (The Rookie, 42) or made up (Bull Durham), others look at historical teams (A League of their Own, Eight Men Out.) The one I chose was closer to the latter. So my first movie pick is – Moneyball. The 2011 movie was based, loosely, on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, and starred Brad Pitt (who was not a bad fit for Billy Beane, but was quite possibly picked to help sell the sports flick to female viewers).
In short, the movie follows the 2002 Oakland A’s, a team coming off a great season but forced to try and fill holes in their roster. They had several big stars leave and a small budget to work with, posing rather a dilemma. Oakland is located in a large, prosperous metro area, but have the misfortune of being across the bay from the more popular San Francisco Giants and their better stadium. Crowds and money are usually scarce for them compared to most other teams. So their General Manager, Billy Beane, has the task of trying to stay competitive without having enough money to replace his departed stars with equal-quality players. Which is where it gets interesting.
Beane knows he can’t outspend big market teams like New York or Boston, so he needs to be smarter than them. He brings in a young computer nerd to be his assistant and starts to buy into the theories of Bill James, a bean factory security guard who happens to have a mind for numbers and stats. James has come up with brand new statistics that he thinks better show which players are great, average or need dumping. One very basic example the film mentions is that walks are not counted in many “conventional” stats like batting average. But a player who walks a lot gets on base and has a lot of chances to score runs…which win games. Few teams at that point paid much attention to that; Beane does.
Now this sounds rather esoteric and probably dry as fun as watching paint dry to non-fans. That’s where the brilliance of screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zuillian come in. They were able to find the human part of the story, the drama, which in turn makes it into a film on a larger scale anyone can relate to – a tale of underdogs fighting jerks, a tale of perseverance paying off.
Beane’s approach rubs many in the team and its organization the wrong way. He has conflicts with old scouts who refuse to buy into stats, relying on their guts instead (in one of the more humorous bits, a scout tells Beane a young player isn’t worth having because his girlfriend is ugly. “Shows he lacks confidence,” the scout declares). They hate the young nerd, Peter, played well by Jonah Hill, who comes in in a tie with a computer spouting numbers that go over the oldtimers heads. Beane has to choose who to believe, and takes a chance on several underdog players dismissed by other clubs based on his assistant’s numerical take. And then there’s the bench coach, a surly, old veteran, Art Howe, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose initial response is to simply scoff and refuse to obey his boss’ (Beane) instructions.
Needless to say, Beane’s experiment seems ill-fated at first, but then the team suddenly “gels” and goes on a historic winning streak. In the end, the A’s make the playoffs, he’s validated and ends up changing the nature of the game. Within three or four years, most teams would copy Beane’s approach.
The movie was in general accurate, but the true baseball fan will find a few errors in it as well as oversights. For instance, while the film focuses on the success of his “pet” players, washed up or under-rated types like Scott Hatteburg and Dave Justice, it ignores a solid core of established stars that had stayed on from the 2001 team, like Miguel Tejada, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player award that year. This doesn’t diminish the overall effect and appreciation of the film though.
A classic David vs Goliath battle, with a likeable hero and a goofy but equally likeable sidekick. It’s a film for everyone, that shows sports is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. Moneyball was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Pitt and Best Supporting Actor for Hill.
I give it four fastballs out of five!