Mutual Oscarbation: Moneyball and the Revenge of the Nerds

01/27/2012 10:28 AM |

Superstar mathletes.

  • Superstar mathletes.

Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are trading players. This week they root for the underdog, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball.

So, Ben, Moneyball is a story about baseball, which means it’s a story about America, right? It’s a redemption story, but more to the point an American Dream story, a practically Capraesque affirmation of America, though perhaps a bit more complex; Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has the financial disadvantage as the general manager of the Oakland A’s—they’re the runts of capitalism, with one-third of the payroll of the Yankees—but he chips away at their hegemony through his determination and intelligence; or, at least, the smarts to employ and listen to people smarter than him (Jonah Hill). Strangely, Beane struck me as a Mitt Romney figure; his solution to solving baseball’s “medieval thinking” sounded awfully Bain Capital-esque, making systems more efficient by breaking hoary shibboleths about prizing people over statistics. Moneyball sort of celebrates a profits (i.e. wins)-over-people approach, doesn’t it? Although Beane also succeeds only when he becomes less like Romney (in affect if not ideology)—when he drops the cold and distant thing and connects with his players.

Say what now, Henry?! Sure, Moneyball‘s Oakland Athletics-New York Yankees opposition is about America, but not its nerds-versus-bullies narrative. No matter how little it resembles a conventional sports movie—like A’s GM Billy, we almost never see the games live, and sometimes not at all—Moneyball still takes up that classic underdog trope trotted out in every franchise from Rocky to The Mighty Ducks, opposing passionate born athletes against unfeeling brutes. As Rocky Balboa knew all too well, “You beat them with heart, not muscle.” Much is made of the cold, calculating and mercenary number-crunching management style developed by Billy and Peter (Hill); the curmudgeonly old talent scouts see it as an affront to the sport. But, as you said, it only starts to pay off once Peter and Billy become closer to the players. It’s also presented at the outset as a belief in players who everybody else has passed over, a certain managerial bargain-hunting, yes, but also a willingness to put faith in athletes others consider too strange (like the pitcher with the unconventional and very slow curve-balls) or over-the-hill (like the former super star who Billy asks to act as a leader for the young team). If anything, with its regard for the passed-over and injured (like the catcher-turned-first baseman with nerve damage in his throwing arm), Billy and Peter’s strategy smacks of socialism—which I guess isn’t entirely un-Romney-esque, but certainly not like Romney 2012. Henry, which is more American, Moneyball‘s mercenary management style or its passionate belief in the underdog?

The 2012 election will decide that question, Ben. (I’m similarly torn about whether Beane’s vindication in the end is a happy ending—a populist victory—or an unhappy one, a victory for corporate wolves dressed as populist sheep.) But you’re right that there’s also something socialistic about Beane’s approach, too: his belief in a unified team, a la Miracle, and not just in star players, subverting conservatism’s rugged individualism; this ain’t a team of John Waynes. (Or, er, Jason Giambis?) But then again, it’s a cold, business-minded approach to socialism (I’m getting carried away here)—the A’s success is based on neither heart nor muscle but on cool intellect. Yes, Billy and Peter, as the latter puts it, “find the value in players no one else can see,” but they see those players less as people than as investments. Remember that one scene where Billy is working the phones, trying to make trades? I mean, they’re trades—how much more literal about people as stocks can you get? (Made during the day? On the phone? Through scheming?) That said, director Bennett Miller, with screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, take pains to establish Beane as a warm, human character off the field. What did you make of those scenes with his family? I admit I kinda teared up at the end, and had that song his daughter sings stuck in my head all night.

The family scenes seemed pretty tacked on, Henry, not unlike the way a political candidate trots out her or his family along the campaign trail to compliment political expertise (or cover up its absence) with a portrait of domestic bliss—or a spectacle worthy of reality TV. The single dad-daughter dynamic reminded me of last year’s Somewhere, but with feeling—or Biutiful, but with less feeling. Beane and daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) only share a few scenes, and they mostly consist of Pitt fighting back tears while his daughter plays that song by that Aussie pop songstress that came out six years after the movie’s 2002 setting. Less teary was the scene in which Beane goes to pick her up and, while waiting, half-tries to make small talk with his ex-wife and her new husband (Robin Wright and Spike Jonze) in their minimalist palace on the hill. Alongside the parodically zen pair, Beane seems to epitomize Red State American masculinity. In another scene he even starts talking in action movie-speak—by referencing a franchise Brad Pitt was actually in! “We’re the card-counters at the blackjack table,” Beane tells Brand, “and we’re going to beat the casino.” Moneyball manages to cater to (Academy) voters on both sides of the aisle by portraying Beane as both a sweet, clever underdog sticking it to the man, and a cut-throat spendthrift jock. We’ll have to wait and see if this is the kind of bipartisanship that wins Oscar championships.

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt and Henry Stewart @henrycstewart