What, you were expecting a movie review?
You haven’t seen enough of those already?
I have. Oh, I haven’t read any of them. I didn’t want to read any of them before I saw the movie, which I did last Sunday night, at a press screening in Berkeley. But I also didn’t want to read any of them before I wrote about the movie. Just because.
I did plan on writing a review for this site, because I do fancy myself something of a film buff, and this seemed like the perfect time to finally write my first real movie review (that I can remember, anyway).
Then I saw it. And then I didn’t want to review it anymore. Not yet, anyway. For a couple of reasons.
One, suddenly it seemed presumptuous. I’m going to tell you whether the movie is worth seeing? If you’re reading this, you must see it. It’s a must-see. Even if you hated the book, or loved the book and don’t want to see what Hollywood has done with it, you still have to see it. Just so you can be a part of the discussion that’s bound to happen in the coming weeks and months and years. You know you’re going to see it eventually, so why wait? Like most movies, it’s better at the theatre. And when you see it, stay for the song that’s played over the closing credits. Trust me.
Two, while watching the movie I tried to keep my objective reviewer’s fedora planted firmly on my head, but I just couldn’t do it. Sitting there in the dark next to Joe Posnanski — who’s got some of his own skin in the game — I did take notes, but when I look at them now they’re of little use to me and I sort of regret bothering with them. I should have just done what I usually do at the movies, and let this one wash over me with its wonderful, magical cinematic tricks.
And trust me (again) … Moneyball‘s got its share of tricks. See the movie this weekend, and maybe later we can compare notes. But you’ve got an Oscar-nominated director, two Oscar-winning writers, a brilliant cinematographer, one of our finest screen actors in the lead role, brilliant source material … what, you’re expecting Porky’s 4: The Oinks Have It?
It’s a good movie. My standards for greatness are high, and this movie doesn’t quite reach that bar for reasons I’ll be happy to discuss next week. It’s certainly one of the best baseball-related movies that’s been made, and I’ll be happy to place Moneyball into that context next week, too.
What does it mean, though? For most of the world, it’s just a movie. While Michael Lewis’s book actually had a profound impact on the way business is conducted (or conducted, ideally), both within sports and without, the movie simply can’t have that sort of power. Because while the book was about an idea, the movie is necessarily about a compelling character named Billy Beane as portrayed by Brad Pitt. In the hands of talented filmmakers, it would actually be sort of hard to screw up that combination, and they didn’t.
Hey, this is veering into Reviewland. Which isn’t my intention.
But why is the movie about Billy Beane, necessarily? You tell me, when’s the last time you saw (let alone enjoyed) a movie about an idea?
OK. You can get back to me on that one.
If anything, I think this movie, however skillfully made, however successful at the box office, might finally put Moneyball to rest. The book came out more than eight years ago, and of course it’s enjoyed an exceptionally long shelf life, both literally and figuratively. I don’t mean to suggest that the paperbacks will suddenly disappear from the airport bookstores, or that you won’t still hear broadcasters reference Moneyball during baseball games.
I do mean to suggest that Moneyball: The Movie should and might serve as a sort of denouement for the particular arguments and bad feelings that the story created. As someone pointed out recently, if Grady Fuson can work again for Billy Beane and the Athletics – as he has, since the spring of 2010 – shouldn’t the rest of us get over it?
Of course, the idea in the book wasn’t that Grady Fuson and Art Howe were idiots. The idea was that every enterprise interested in success should ask a very simple but disturbing question …
If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?
That’s in the movie, too, but it takes a supporting role. As everything in a movie must do, necessarily. Except George Clooney.
For me, the tricky thing about writing about the movie objectively is that it’s difficult for me to be objective about people I know. Particularly if I like them.
Before last Sunday, when we exchanged greetings after a press conference at the Coliseum, I hadn’t spoken to Billy Beane in a few years. But I’ve enjoyed my conversations with him, sat next to his wife at a spring-training game, rooted for his team to beat the Yankees, and of course I have written about his team dozens of times (especially when they were winning). When I’m seeing a giant version of Billy Beane on the screen, being charismatic and funny and generous and oh-so-likeable, it’s difficult for me to do anything but root for his movie.
I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve been friendly with Michael Lewis for some years. We first met at a SABR convention in Boston in 2002, and I helped him with the book to whatever degree he would allow me. I also did my best to help him with The Blind Side. In return, Michael has been very kind to me over the years. Again, this is no secret; my name’s in the acknowledgements in both books, for which I’m grateful. When I’m listening to actual lines being spoken in a movie theatre by actual movie stars, and I played even a tiny role in those lines being written, it’s difficult for me to do anything but root for this writer’s movie.
And finally, I suspect you know that without Bill James, I would have no career.
Well, that’s not fair to me. I might have a career as a roofer, or a Pizza Hut manager, or maybe even a high-school history teacher. But I certainly wouldn’t be lucky enough to be work as a baseball writer if Bill James hadn’t hired me 23 years ago. And Bill James is all over this movie. He’s mentioned four or five times. At one point, we even see a photo of Bill, and another of a Stokely Van Camp plant (somewhat famously, Bill worked at such a plant while working out his early ideas about baseball). At another point, an actor playing Red Sox owner John Henry says something about Bill James that seemed so utterly familiar to me that I suspect Henry actually said it to me first, in an interview when the Red Sox hired me.
Or perhaps that was just my imagination. It’s really not important. The point is that I’ve been living with this story, one way or another, for my entire adult life, essentially since I was eighteen and first discovered the Baseball Abstract. It’s impossible for me to do anything but root for a movie in which my inspiration, my benefactor, my mentor, my co-author, my writing hero is lionized in celluloid.
Did I mention that Brad Pitt has become, with his recent string of brilliant performances, perhaps my favourite actor?
It is perhaps impossible for anyone to be completely objective about anything. The best we can do, as reviewers or critics or commentators or analysts, is to be up-front about our biases, our loves, and our dreams. Now you know about some of mine. Monday, after I’ve seen it again, I’ll tell you what I think about the movie. And I hope you will tell me what you think. You’re probably better-equipped to read this one than I.
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