The romantic idealism of 'Moneyball', the pre-eminent sports movie of our times

The biographical baseball drama subverts the underdog formula by presenting digital pragmatism as the unlikely hero

Updated - March 21, 2020 02:43 am IST

Published - March 20, 2020 08:58 pm IST

At its core, sport is the celebration of physical traditionalism. Primal instincts like survival, speed, endurance, athleticism and courage become tangible traits under the guise of entertainment. Consequently, like any visual medium, sport becomes an inherent endorsement of beauty over mechanics. We admire winners who turn sport into a science of technical efficiency: Modern-day Australian cricket teams, Cristiano Ronaldo, Novak Djokovic, Michael Schumacher. They make domination look mundane. But we adore winners who turn sport into an art of irresistible naturalism: West Indian cricket teams of yore, Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Ayrton Senna. They make domination feel memorable.

Transformative technology

In context of storytelling, these two schools of style are mutually exclusive: Raw oldness is the heroic underdog, while slick newness is the impersonal antagonist. Which is why I believe Moneyball is the pre-eminent sports movie of our times. On the face of it, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball , based on Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, examines the technological transformation of baseball at the turn of the century.

The two protagonists, Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), would have been the soulless anti-heroes of any other sports film. They use sophisticated sabermetrics. They disregard scouts’ intuitive experiences. They ditch high-profile players. They turn winning into dry math.

Trouble with the Curve released a year after Moneyball , starring Clint Eastwood as an aging baseball scout in an age of tech-savvy young managers. Eastwood wins with old-fashioned instinct against Matthew Lillard, the film’s corporate newbie. In other words, Moneyball ’s Beane and Brand desensitise a sport – stripping it off flourish, fluidity, subjectivity – by reducing it to advanced analytics. Yet, this biographical baseball drama subverts the underdog formula by presenting digital pragmatism as the unlikely hero and paperback sentimentalism as the default setting. Beane is in fact the one engulfed by a stubborn system – an arrogant head scout, skeptical CEO, cynical coach, distrusting players.

Science or art?

But this isn’t to say idealists are the bad guys. A distinct feature of Moneyball is its elusive balance between the two incompatible schools of style. The story might be a rare endorsement of science in sport, but art informs its filmmaking. For instance, the central music theme ( The Mighty Rio Grande ) isn’t a conventional sports score: It evokes the wistfulness of memory, of the future becoming history in real time. It suggests that Billy Beane is an incurable romantic. He is driven by chafed affection, by superstition, by the prospect of transcending logic. The understated personality of Moneyball thrives on this paradox – of the old guard updating a purist’s passion. Necessity is the mother of invention. But in Beane’s case, heartbreak is the father of invention. His love – of family (divorced), baseball (scouts ruined his playing career), competition (crippled by budget) – has failed him over the years. Almost reactively, he hires the epitome of reasoning: an Economics graduate for whom science is simply an elevated form of art.

Moneyball ’s Peter Brand is emblematic of modern sport’s robotisation. The game is an academic project for him. But the film’s finest scenes have the two men silently feeding off one another. Brand’s calculative head shows signs of Beane’s heartbeat when he celebrates – with a comical fist-pump – on securing a last-gasp transfer deal.

Brand even agrees to engage with the players, and fire them in person. Only in a late scene does he reveal himself as a modified pragmatist. He shows Beane the footage of an obese hitter tumbling at base before realising his shot is a home run. Brand’s nostalgic narration breaks character, eventually prompting the older man to remember his own love: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”.

Triumph of romanticism

Beane, too, evidently adopts some of Brand’s cold objectivity. On the cusp of a record streak, Billy Beane breaks his no-game-watching protocol and drives back to the stadium. (The camera continues in his lane even as he abandons it). The team blows a 11-0 lead. The winning play, however, is a hypnotic combination of Beane’s romanticism and Brand’s realism. The coach overrules his own instinct to bat Hatteberg, an undervalued sabermetrics pick. At first glance, Hatteberg scoring looks like a Brand moment – a mathematically inevitable shot. But Beane’s idealism defines it: seconds earlier, Beane left the stands to unjinx the game. Moreover, the home run came from a defensive first-baseman – against strategy, wisdom

Mundanity is usually sacrificed at the altar of a miracle. But the miracle of Moneyball , like the team it reflects, is merely a sum of tangible mundanities. The Athletics lose the playoffs, because both men eventually resist getting consumed by method; they retain a glimmer of madness. The film closes with Beane on the freeway, contemplating the fickleness of sport. He plays a tape of his daughter’s song. Here’s a die-hard romantic who hates losing, but has lost plenty without shedding a tear. Yet, it’s only when the girl’s unblemished voice breaks into an extra verse of “You’re such a loser , dad,” his eyes finally go glassy. With proud tears. How can you not be romantic about filmmaking?

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