As far as misleading marketing is concerned, Nicolas Winding-Refn’s 2011 critical darling Drive is the gold standard to which all others should be judged against. Trailers had it marked as a Fast And Furious style action adventure, an exciting thrill ride led with cool charisma by one of cinema’s newest superstars. What audiences received instead was a brooding, brilliantly stylized indie noir starring a near mute Ryan Gosling, sprinkled with squeamishly graphic violence and with barely a car chase in it. Greeted with universal fanfare from critics quick to laud it as a classic, most of the general public were left entirely confused and more than a little disturbed, exemplified by a Michigan woman filing a lawsuit over the trailer’s misdirection, lamenting the fact the film itself included “very little driving”. It’s one of the more obvious examples of a studio’s advertising failing to draw a cohesive connection to the material itself.
It happens surprisingly often. The first trailer for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball was a rousing, two and a half minute advertisement painting Brad Pitt’s lead character as the cocky and reckless manager at the helm of one of baseball’s biggest ever success stories, all to a thumping blues rock soundtrack by the Black Keys. Clearly bearing closer resemblance to the sporting heroics of movies like Remember The Titans and Rudy, the film it preceded was in reality nothing like them. Telling the true story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s attempts to incorporate sabermetrics into the way his club scouted players, the film was based on Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game, an account that read less like a David and Goliath retelling than it did an in-depth study of small market organizations trying to compete against teams with a payroll more than three times the size of their own.
The film itself is an entirely different proposition from both. Marketing created expectations of a movie closer to the Disney-esque adaptation of Lewis’ other book The Blind Side, an uplifting retelling of Michael Oher’s journey to NFL stardom subsequently turned into the woeful yet Oscar winning Sandra Bullock vehicle. The book meanwhile delved more into the analytics behind it all, frustrating baseball traditionalists with the way it boiled the game down to numbers and mathematics. Miller and the film’s two screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin instead opt to use baseball as simply an outline to concentrate on a man struggling to come to terms with his own failures and unrealized ambitions.
The trailer’s confident showman is a far cry from the character Pitt plays here – a little desperate, a little obsessive, a little dejected – he’s disillusioned by the disparity between his team and the giants like the New York Yankees. His background is glimpsed at throughout the film – brief interruptions showing key moments of his short lived career in the major leagues – and his private life viewed through the prism of his ex-wife, her new husband and Beane’s young daughter Casey, played with careful sincerity by Kerris Dorsey. They tread lightly around him, both concerned for his career and unsure of his mental state. He assures them constantly that he’s okay, never completely doing anything to relieve their concerns. Their weariness offers insights into Pitt’s character, a man whose confidence is permanently saddled with a frustration over where his life has ended up.
Beane only ever truly opens up when in conversation with his assistant general manager Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill. In an already incredible screenplay it’s the seemingly baseball orientated dialogue between the two men that reveals the most. Beane mentions at various stages that if they don’t win the last game of the season then none of it matters, unintentionally making the phrase a heartbreaking motto he lives by throughout the movie. Each new success doesn’t ever satisfy him, only adding to his need to make up for past disappointments. Brand is the person responsible for introducing the Moneyball concept to him, but even he becomes hesitant about the idea when faced with Beane’s intense conviction.
Pitt gives arguably the greatest performance of his career. He’s less showy than he was in some of his most well-loved roles, playing Beane closer to his resigned and exhausted protagonist of The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford than the flash and freneticism of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden or Jeffrey Goines from 12 Monkeys. Miller spends moments of different scenes with the camera simply lingering on Pitt’s face, letting his lead convey an internal struggle he can’t put into words. It’s an incredible showing – subtle, restrained, and emotional without ever resorting to caricature. Jonah Hill too is a revelation, a role unlike any he’s played before. Gone is the sarcastic loudmouth he’s known for playing – in its place a shy, uncertain math genius. The best scenes of the movie are just the two of them in dialogue with each other, Beane’s determination bouncing off Brand’s awkwardness. Pitt and Hill’s chemistry is the most surprising aspect here.
“Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?” Beane asks Brand midway through the film, querying whether or not they’re going to go all in on their approach. It’s a brilliant example of the extremes he thinks in, and only the second best metaphor discussed in the movie. Miller ends the film with another quiet conversation between his two leads, a far cry from the usual euphoria most sporting films climax in. Even the successes Beane ends the movie with are tinged with sadness. They revolutionized the sport, utterly destroying the way teams had previously assembled players, culminating in their record winning streak. It’s a bittersweet result, as in the end the approach was such a success that every other team in the league quickly took it on, cancelling out any advantage the Athletics had gained in the process.
Without the championship it all amounts to nothing in Beane’s eyes anyway, something Miller quietly counters in two finishing scenes dripping with subtle genius. Through the film’s third act the idea of finding value in things most people overlook gradually moves away from sport to Beane himself, illustrated in hilariously blunt fashion by Brand, and much more delicately by Casey in the final moments. His laser focus on winning the last game of the season distracts him from things that matter most, his ability to assemble an “island of misfit toys” team of baseball players a notion he can’t quite fit to his personal life. Where most sporting films find resolution in trophies and celebrations, Moneyball suggests that sometimes we’re too busy looking at the larger picture to realize the successes we’re having in the meantime. It’s a heartbreaking, beautiful and intelligent cinema classic.