By – Ajay Patri
Sports films always come with some extra baggage, one that I believe the makers are well aware of. Simply put, they are not everyone’s cup of tea. Of course, this can be said of a movie of any genre but for a sports film, it makes even more sense since knowing the intricacies of the game itself might enhance one’s viewing pleasure. I absolutely enjoyed watching The Damned United because I like football. I did not enjoy watching Invictus to the same extent because I do not follow rugby.
I am not a baseball fan. But I enjoyed watching Moneyball nonetheless. Yes, somewhere down the line, I thought I might have enjoyed the movie even more if I was actually well versed in the rules of the game and had a passion for it. But that should not deter you from watching it. Because the movie is more than baseball and that is the reason why it triumphs.
I won’t go into the details of the plot but just give a glimpse of what you might have already read about. It is about a relatively small baseball team (one that is beset by financial constraints and has become a feeder club for larger teams) that employed a radical methodology of recruiting new players, of using numbers to analyse players (I later learned it is known as sabermatics). You might think this cannot translate into entertaining cinema (I had my doubts, I admit) but you will be wrong.
I think the reason the movie transcends the sport itself is due to the emphasis it places on this transition. It is an analogy of a revolution; of how the old guard is reluctant to let go of the status quo when faced with new ideas. That the story of this revolution keeps you riveted for more than two hours without rousing speeches (a staple of many sports based movies) and frenetic action is a mark of success on the part of the director Bennett Miller.
Like his earlier movie Capote, Moneyball does seem to lack pace at times. But it never reaches the point where it becomes frustrating to watch. For this, praise must go to the actors. Brad Pitt is a very good actor and here he puts in a performance that is very restrained. His character, Billy Beane, is the General Manager of the aforesaid team. You realise the risks that he is undertaking by challenging the old methods and you intuitively support him like you would support an underdog who is out to defy the system. Pitt deserves credit for earning that sympathy and support from the audience. Yes, he does have a subdued private life with the clichéd broken marriage and a kid that he only rarely gets to see but the filmmakers steer clear of making this situation mushy, though your sympathy for him only increases. Scenes from his past are interspersed in the movie which goes a long way in making you understand his actions. A wise move, since otherwise you would end up thinking he is just a stubborn and reckless person.
Sadly the same cannot be said of Jonah Hill, who plays a Yale economics graduate who helps Pitt with the player recruitments. Jonah Hill is excellent in his scenes but his character suffers as a result of the focus on Pitt. It is not his fault really and I was wishing we could have got a larger glimpse at his character.
Pitt and Hill are ably supported by the equally impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Art Howe, the coach of the team who is at loggerheads with Pitt’s character. The players themselves are not looked at in depth.
I think the last bit is important. This is not a sports movie in the traditional sense. The focus is not on the players and you only have one eye on what happens on the pitch. The focus is on the long smart exchanges that occur between Pitt and Hill, and the confrontations between Pitt and the established order of old school scouts, the management and the coach. This is one of the things I liked the most about this movie; the fact that it invites you to pay close attention to these conversations, which ultimately propel the movie forward. And when you do, you end up with a very rewarding experience. This is also the reason why in spite of not being a fan of baseball, I was able to appreciate the movie.
It is ultimately a movie about human nature and resilience, and about change. The last scene, a long shot of Pitt driving as the camera closes in on his face, is brilliant; as he contemplates a change of a different kind, though a change nonetheless (I will let you find that out). That scene brings the movie to a satisfying end and Pitt, in my opinion, deserves that Oscar nod for that scene alone, where he manages to convey so much in such a short span of time.