on moneyball

Cinematically, so little has happened between The Social Network and Moneyball that it’s been like holding one’s breath. A true and magnificent dynasty has, seemingly, arrived: Aaron Sorkin the screenwriter, David Fincher the director. Moneyball had previews for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

(Well, there’s also Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, but that’s another post.)

What a breathtaking film. As he did in Capote, Bennett Miller overuses “lonely” imagery, making too much of empty ballparks just as he made too much of the spacious prairie before. As he did in The Social Network, Sorkin has a minor character sort of jump onstage at the end to explain what it all means (there it was Rashida Jones, here it’s Arliss Howard as John Henry, owner of the Red Sox). This isn’t a film about loneliness, and it doesn’t all mean one thing.

Moneyball is truly a film of ideas, and it makes three wonderful arguments. First, it is a film about mystification. Baseball players do things that enable their teams to win games, but only a certain percentage of the time. This isn’t a good enough story to keep the wheels of investment turning smoothly — not just the financial investment in players, but also (as the film makes clear) the investment of the fans and even of the players themselves. So everything that the players do well, like getting on base, gets blended into a conversation about their looks, their mentality, their leadership potential, and a hundred other variables that don’t actually apply. A lot of critics seem to think that the difference between Billy Beane and his scouts was that Beane became a numbers guy, and they continued to rely on instinct. Actually, instinct has nothing to do with it, except as a term people use to obscure whatever system they’ve actually got. The scouts are numbers guys, too: batting average, on-base percentage, errors, stolen bases, RBI. But they’re so deep into their own narrative that the result is a sort of coded speech, and the incredible thing about the film is how it makes that code sound as strange and false as it is.

Americans love to flirt with clarity. We love to have all the facts about the “adaptive subconscious,” thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, only to then retreat back to summarizing his book as a validation of instinct. We love to find out what makes advertisements tick, but when a frosty German woman brings up the death drive, Don Draper immediately throws her report in the trash. Then, later, the costs of such rationalizations arrive with brutal force. (That’s probably why Michael Lewis is such a good fit for books about this economic crisis.) There’s a painful, yet funny scene in Moneyball when a scout, recruiting Beane, tells him and his parents that Beane has all “five skills” that make excellent players. When his career flops, the discourse switches to criticisms of his mindset; so much for the “five skills.” In another great moment, Dave Justice is eating Fruit Loops in front of shelves containing all the different health foods: Met-RX protein powder, Clif Bars, and so forth. All of those products belong to different narratives: Clif Bars are vaguely related to outdoorsy exercise and “natural” foods, while Met-RX sort of comes on like a personal trainer in a can. I don’t know which one is right for my body, and neither do you, and neither does Dave Justice with his Fruit Loops. So we exist in a consumerist fog, unable to even recognize the obvious: Mark McGwire was famous for endorsing protein powders until it became clear that his muscles were from steroids.

Second, it’s a film about the rejuvenating effect of purging bias. Oddly enough, Beane’s scouts are old men who dislike Peter Brand because he’s too young, and dislike Dave Justice because he’s too old, and they’re wrong both times. It is exhausting to maintain a prejudice, and to pretend to certainty; the film explores how much solace there can be in just knowing a little more of the impartial truth. Considering the way Beane’s players have been treated before he drafts them, his statistics are a kind of mercy.

Finally, it is enormously difficult not to live up to low expectations, says Moneyball. Peter and Billy egg each other on; it’s clear that neither of them would have been able to pull off this rebellion singlehandedly. Obviously, Brad Pitt cuts a more heroic profile than Jonah Hill, but this is not a film about lonesome cowboys, which is why the ballpark scenes are overdone. It’s a film about the social dimension of innovation, the way friends get each other through crises of conviction. That’s how it manages to be the first baseball movie I have ever seen where, by the end, the numbers fall away.

***

Joseph Kugelmass went on to see 3 more films where, according to him, the numbers fell away.

Ryan Gosling never made another film as good as Drive. He never even made another film as good as Crazy Stupid Love.

Trent Reznor now lives in Big Sur. In late 2011, Michael Lewis asked him to compose the soundtrack for his new film, Boomerang. Reznor agreed.

The music was very dark.

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