Sunday, October 23, 2011

Movie Buff: Math Rules Everything Around Me--A Review of Moneyball

Moneyball tells the story of what happens when you put sabermetrics in charge of a baseball team. It stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the Oakland A's general manager, and Jonah Hill as assistant GM Peter Brand. The basic plot of the film is that, faced with the loss of several key players at the start of the 2002 season, Beane embraced sabermetrics to answer the team's pressing deficits--sabermetrics being the analysis of baseball purely through statistical means, with no concern for extrinsic factors that determined a player's worth. It's based on the A's real-life results, which were somewhat mixed: on the one hand, they set a new record with a 20 game winning streak, but on the other hand, they lost out in the first round of the postseason. The movie's story, however, is less about the rise and fall of the team and more about the life of Billy Beane in regards to the sport of baseball.

In terms of acting, the film has a relatively small main cast, with a number of lesser but significant performances. In comparison to most sport films, the players themselves are mostly bit characters. Stephen Bishop does a good job as the aging pro, and Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation) plays a more realistic version of his Andy character as a ball player who lost his confidence after suffering some nerve damage to his arm. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Art Howe, the team's manager. As someone resistant to Beane's methods, Howe has the thankless task of serving as the closest thing the film has to a villain, but to the credit of both Hoffman and the script, Howe's viewpoint is offered not so much as a demonized view but misguided one--which is perhaps slightly more patronizing, but you can't have everything. (I'm gathering there was some acrimonious discussions over Howe's characterization at some point--according to the wikipedia article, Art Howe in the film is "a fictional A's manager named after the actual A's manager.") Moving up, the supporting cast role is definitely Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, the economics graduate Beane hires to do the bean counting. Hill plays a much more subdued character than his usual "raunchy comedy" schtick, and it's good to see some range for him. Of course, the star role is Brad Pitt. I spent most of the film trying to decide exactly how I would characterize his performance. I finally decided that he reminded me of a mix between the father on Gossip Girl and George Clooney, which meant that he was more or less exactly like Coach Laundry on the Friday Night Lights TV series. The GM role is usually a money-obsessed villain in a sports movie, so it was nice to see the role take the lead here.

And that's what really struck me about the film--the way it very consciously engages with the genre of the sports film, and breaks away from it. To continue my wikipedia perusal, it seems that the earlier director for Moneyball was Steven Soderbergh, who wanted to frame the film with interviews from the actual players and use other touches that would distinguish it from the typical sports film. Soderbergh was replaced with Bennett Miller, and Aaron Sorkin was called in to rewrite the script, but that sense of "the anti-sport film" is still there. There's barely any focus on the players, the movie doesn't end with the team's triumphant victories, and, in one of my favorite bits, Beane's attempts to delivering rousing speeches in the locker room fall awesomely short: "Nobody likes losing! So... don't lose!" This falls a little short from Al Pacino's "Six Inches" in Any Given Sunday.

And of course, there's the focus on math over players. Though it works for a fantasy league, I imagine it was a tough sell for managing an actual team. It's an even tougher sell for the basis of a movie, as it counters our basic narrative principles--nobody, with the possible exception of mathematicians, really favors looking at numbers over looking at people. Personally, I have virtually no love for baseball, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for sabermetrics. As a former mathematician who once specialized (or at least dabbled heavily) in abstract algebra, I don't really care for math that has a "practical" application. But sabermetrics is different. First, it has the name--even though the name's origin has nothing to do with weaponry, (It actually comes from SABR, The society for American Baseball Research), it still translates into sword-math, which is awesome. And I have a fondness for it because, as Barton notes in Dungeons and Desktops, sabermetrics is a distant predecessor for the stat-based Role playing game, making it an ancestor of the modern video game and Dungeons and Dragons. But I still recognize that to a normal person, math = underdog is a hard sell.

The film manages to make it work through two main methods. First, by appealing to a different cultural zeitgeist--the constant, and perhaps growing, anxiety of the average Westerner that the top 1% perhaps don't deserve to be on top. The argument here is that the top ranked players in the league are overrated--their wages are based less on performance and more on inflated egos. Sabermetrics is a way of evening the field, and brings to the front those players who are technically better, but underrated. Thus, the math of sabermetrics isn't dehumanizing, but a way of recontextualizing value to something more fair. Or to put it a different way: you're not going to lose sympathy arguing against the salaries of the New York Yankees.

The other way the film garners sympathy is by casting sabermetrics in the lens of the Billy Beane's personal struggle. As a former player turned manager, Beane is constantly trying to keep himself emotionally distant from the game he once loved. An early scene of the film shows him, as a younger man, being recruited under the pitch (heh) that you only get one chance to do what you really love. Later, he tells Brand that you can't get emotionally involved with the players, because you might have to fire them. He makes a point out of not going to the games in person, because he finds himself too personally involved. The viewer gets the sense that, out of necessity, Beane has taken to treating his entire life at the same emotional distance, as demonstrated in a scene where he treats his ex-wife and her new husband with polite cordiality. In fact, there's another clear difference with your typical sports film: there's no love interest here. The only major female character is Beane's 12 year old daughter (played very well by the 14 year old Kerris Dorsey). So Beane keeps everyone and everything at arms' length, and sabermetrics is a part of that distance. The film's point, however, punctuated three times by a first baseman's winning hit, a heavyset player's home run, and Beane's daughter's song, is that distant isn't uncaring, and that numbers don't have to be dehumanizing--by giving them space and encouragement, Beane inspires these people to be more than they are.

In a lot of ways, Moneyball reminds me of my other favorite sports film, Fever Pitch. Both address a fan-based approach to the game: Fever Pitch, the obsessed fan compelled to attend every game, and Moneyball the desire to understand and master through numbers. And both are about individuals dealing with their attraction to something they recognize as much bigger than themselves, Fever Pitch by asking how you forge a normal life in the wake of such an obsession, and Moneyball... well, it's about the same thing, really. And that's what I like about both films, that at the bottom, they're not about baseball, but about people, and what they need to do to make it through the day.

Later Days.

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