Film review – Moneyball (2011)

10 November 2011
Moneyball: Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

The extent to which a film about sporting statistics can be enthralling is best demonstrated during a series of high stake negotiations over the phone in Moneyball. The two main characters, Oakland Athletics baseball team general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are in their small office putting their controversial player trading strategy to work. As the financial underdogs of Major League Baseball in 2002, Beane and Brand have developed a radical new approach to compiling a team to compete with clubs who have bigger budgets and therefore stronger player buying power. Through careful player statistics scrutiny Beane and Brand went after overlooked players who would theoretically become a team capable of winning. For a film about the behind-the-scenes politics of baseball, it is therefore appropriate that a behind-the-scenes sequence is the most exciting moment. Beane and Brand juggle phone calls, negotiate on the run and communicate split decisions to each other while maintaining the illusion of calm conversation on the phone. It’s tense and exhilarating.

With Beane as the extrovert and Brand as the introvert, the pair are a likeable, underdogs odd couple taking on an unfair system. Like the players they controversially select, they are also both under appreciated and underachievers. While far more traditionally ‘heroic’ than the protagonists from The Social Network (written by Moneyball co-writer Aaron Sorkin), Beane and Brand change the rules of the game to suit themselves rather than follow the conventional approach. This attracts substantial criticism and condemnation, with critics of their system applying a disproportionate focus on their losses rather than triumphs.

The criticism that Beane and Brand receive reveals a broader trend in social discourse to discredit methodical and scientific approaches over intuition and common sense, or at least the myth of intuition and common-sense. Within the film the accusations of Beane being out of touch become increasingly defensive to expose just how threatened wealthy and powerful interests are when their dominance is challenged. And since one of the key ways the powerless can challenge the powerful is through methodical strategy and rational thought to expose the flaws in the system, that type of analytical thinking is what is attacked. By making the heroes the guys who use a scientific approach to challenge the status quo, Moneyball pleasingly goes against the Hollywood tendency of deriding intelligence.

Moneyball: Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)

Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)

Moneyball is a restrained drama with moments of unconventional excitement. As the film is predominantly from the perspective of Beane, very little actual baseball is shown since Beane was apparently superstitious about attending games. The games are mostly conveyed to the audience in the way they are conveyed to Beane: via brief sound bites on the radio, news reports and text messages from Brand. This keeps the attention on Beane and the execution of his and Brand’s strategy, rather than the typical sport film approach of focusing on the actual game. The film mostly avoids cliché with Beane and Brand’s relationship never going into bromance territory. Some sentiment does seep in during the scenes with Beane’s daughter, but there’s nothing overtly distracting.

A degree of grounding to the film is created through the inclusion of ‘dead time’. Such moments are usually edited out to keep the film zipping along, but Moneyball is full of small and short moments between main bits of dialogue and action to remind the audience of the almost banal and highly unglamorous nature of the machinations off the pitch. Impressively Moneyball manages to convey both a sense of everydayness to what it depicts while also demonstrating the excitement of Beane and Brand’s approach, which would go on to completely change the nature of professional baseball.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Social Network (2010)

27 October 2010
The Social Network: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

Early in David Fincher’s The Social Network there is a brilliant crosscutting sequence where Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg and his Fackbook co-founders are working away on their computers creating the Facebook prototype while a wild party is taking place at one of the exclusive college clubs that Zuckerberg desperately wants to be a part of. As the film cuts back and forth between the computer science students in their room and the college students partying, the juxtaposition seems to invite a scornful comment on the geeks with their computers versus the beautiful young things at play. However, as the sequence progresses and the significance of what is happening sinks in, it suddenly becomes clear that what is really being depicted is a future entrepreneur and billionaire hard at work making history while the born-to-rule kids are stuffing around.

The film that unfolds is a fascinating representation of how Facebook began as a contemptible page called FaceMash, where the attractiveness of female undergraduates was rated, to the revolutionary internet phenomenon that currently boasts it has over 500 million active users. Most of the story is told in flashback with the film set during the time that Zuckerberg was involved in two lawsuits; one with the founders of ConnectU, who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea, and one with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

The Social Network: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)

Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg who up until now has been somewhat typecast in films such as The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland and Zombieland as the awkward-yet-endearing-slightly-nerdy-but-kind-of-cool guy that filmmakers turn to when they don’t want Michael Cera. Eisenberg certainly gives Zuckerberg the necessary computer-geek persona but he also goes far deeper than that to present him as a paranoid, defensive and obsessive monster who seems incapable of empathy and will do what it takes to get his way. His obsessive and at times ruthless behaviour makes him not too dissimilar from the obsessive serial killers in Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac. He is also not too far from the characters in Fight Club as he is likewise an angry young man with a misguided sense of entitlement. As he is told at the beginning of The Social Network, he is not going to be disliked for being a nerd but for being an asshole.

Yet, Zuckerberg is not completely contemptible and there are certainly scenes in The Social Network where his defiance of authority and his ability to stand up to the members of the privileged class makes him bizarrely heroic. Also, unlike most of the other characters in the film, he is not motivated by money but simply does what he does to make his mark on the world. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as an almost blank slate whose limited facial expressions suggest that his inability to express empathy, despite some scenes where he seems to be able to want to, is something more pathological.

The Social Network: Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)

Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)

The real heart of the film comes from the breakdown of Zuckerberg’s personal and business relationship with Eduardo Saverin, which led to the lawsuit. Played beautifully by emerging actor Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) Saverin is by far the most sympathetic character in a film containing mostly very dislikeable characters. Watching him and Zuckerberg drift apart is genuinely sad and made all the worse when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by pop singer Justin Timberlake in a nice bit of ironic casting) enters the scene as a rival for Zuckerberg’s affections.

The Social Network could have been a deathly dull film but Fincher’s impeccable direction and the smart and surprisingly funny script by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin make it utterly engaging. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame also supplies an extremely impressive score that channels his trademark industrial beats and nihilist angst into several pieces of music that distinctively accompany what is happening on screen without ever becoming overbearing. The combined result is a film of our times that captures the spirit of a generation that isn’t prepared to wait their turn or pay their dues and instead will make the opportunities for themselves or tear it away from the less ambitious. It’s like a gangster film where the young hoods prove themselves to the older wiseguys by doing something audacious despite breaking all sorts of codes of honour. It’s both admirable and threatening, exhilarating and terrifying. However, in this case, the antiheros aren’t left in jail or dead but are left to endlessly refresh a browser to see if an ex-girlfriend has accepted their friend request.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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