Monday, September 26, 2011

Moneyball and the Great American Economy

Who is the villain in this film?
Big Money.
It's not the ones who have money, and it's not the ones who don't give money, it's the mis-management of money when that money doesn't need to be spent: as the owner of the Boston Red Sox tells Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), “The Yankees spent $1.4 million to win a game that you only spent $260,000 to win.”
That's a lesson for America at a time when trillions have been spent to stimulate the economy and we're worse off now than before.
First of all, I have to say a word about critics such as David Haglund at the Slate who are complaining about Moneyball against what really happened in the Oakland A's season, or comparing it to the book; film is its own art form. Film never, ever, never, ever, EVER is historical, nor does it attempt to be. Film always uses a historical event merely as a vehicle to convey contemporary ideas beneath the mask of the past. Holding up history as a standard for a film  means that you completely miss everything modern about it.
Jonah Hill as Peter Brand. It's interesting that Billy meets Peter while Peter is working for the Cleveland Indians. Having bought Peter from the Indians, kinda of makes Peter like Tonto, and Billy like the Lone Ranger. This "play" of hero and side-kick works well in a film where there is lots of "play" going on: Casey (Billy's daughter) plays guitar, they "play" numbers, they compare themselves to card counters playing blackjack, Billy "plays" one team off another in trading team members, Peter had to role "play" that he's cutting players, etc.
Director Bennett Miller uses Moneyball as a metaphor for the American economy. That may seem like a stretch, however, supporting actor Peter Brand (Jonah Hill in a tremendously successful role) studied economics and applies it to baseball; we have to take baseball, and apply it to the economy. And it works.
What really drives the metaphor of the American economy in Moneyball is the incredibly low budget Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane has to work with and all the problems that creates for him: he starts out wanting more money from the owner, but then (pictured above) goes to the Cleveland Indians to trade some players and meets Peter Brand. Peter teaches Billy that money has turned the great, all-American game of baseball into something it was never meant to be: a real estate auction. Re-evaluating their own understanding of the game allows them to "see what others have overlooked," and be able to win as a result.
Peter tells Coach Billy Beane that there are great players who get overlooked because we all have built-in biases about what great ballplayers should be; he's absolutely right. "Buying players doesn't buy wins," although that's exactly the way the game has been played instead of "buying runs." This movie could not exist without Game theory and the genuis of play. In my entry for "Game Theory" in How To Eat Art, I detail examples of game and play and the advantages of each. Game is based on a set of rules and the teams use their advantage to win (for example, basketball players are tall to put them closer to the hoop to score with greater ease). Billy tells his board of advisers, "If we play like the Yankees in here, we'll lose to the Yankees out there," because--like a basketball team with the tallest players--the Yankees have the deepest pockets.
Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. Throughout the film, there are flashbacks Beane has of his own career gone from full of hope to bitter disappointment: he passed up a full-scholarship at Stanford to sign a contract with the Mets but not being able to perform, he was traded several times until he decided to become a scout. The "intuition" of a scout to see a good player and think that player could make it in the major leagues reflects some of the chaos theory I have posted on in other places: there are too many factors to be able to guarantee a player will be successful in the majors and Moneyball employs the statistical analysis typical of the mathematical branches of chaos theory to "order the chaos." But Bennett Miller does a great job directing: in this scene, after a devastating loss of his three best players to the Yankees, Beane is literally "in the dark" about what to do and Miller conveys that with the darkness and emptiness of the stadium; that's directing.
On the other hand, play will utilize creative solutions to finding "loopholes" in the rules, hidden advantages in themselves or hidden disadvantages within their opponent to undermine the rules (think of the Ewoks in Star Wars, taking on the evil Empire and devastating that huge, mechanized army with tree trunks and trip wires). Peter, who majored in economics and was then hired by the Cleveland Indians to do "player analysis," has something which the symbol of his eyeglasses enhances about him: clear vision. Peter can see in players what baseball can't see in them, the ability to take the rules of the game and win with them: Peter explains to Billy that managers have an imperfect understanding of where runs come from; big teams don't want players who get to walk to base all the time, but getting on the base is the first step towards a win.
Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg, one of the players overlooked by other teams when his days as a catcher were over because he couldn't throw the ball anymore. "Hatte" represents Americans who lost their jobs and still have remarkable skills to offer the economy but haven't been given the chance because employers are overlooking them, just like big-budget baseball clubs, and that's keeping the economy down the same way it keeps the game of baseball down.
How does this relate to the economy?
Pitcher Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) has a great record, but all the other teams overlooked him because "he looks funny throwing," and a commentator says, "He's a freak and not in a good way"; another player "waddles like a duck," and another player has a bad record... in strip clubs. Billy and Peter "build intelligence into their players" by letting them know what they are good at, and expecting that from them. This is the way employers should be hiring workers in America. The opening quote for the film comes from Mickey Mantle: "It's unbelievable how much you don't know about the game you've been playing all your life," and for America, we have been capitalists from the first day this land was discovered, but the last few years you would think we didn't know anything about the basics of a free-market economy.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as coach Art Howe. In the film and in real life, the wrong people get the credit for the right decisions and the right moves; Howe gets the credit which Peter and Billy deserve. It's especially aggravating because Howe only sees "how" events justify his mis-perceptions of the new players.
The biggest obstacle to overcoming the biases is the coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Just like employers who have a pre-conceived notion of what qualifications a candidate for a job should have, Art has his own biases about what a ball player should look like and hit like and catch like; Peter takes the "island of misfit toys" and shows how, indeed, they do fit after all. Art's inability to understand and disrespect for the real, fundamental nature of what baseball is mirrors the forces in government who pass legislation to shackle business instead of giving businesses a chance. "Billy Beane has been trying to re-invent a system that has been working for years, but it just hasn't worked," but that system has been working for the big teams with deep pockets, it wasn't working for all the teams, nor for all the players; when this new team gets in and wins 20 straight games (a record) it still doesn't change perceptions, because everyone wants their perceptions to be proven correct, not to be shown a new way of doing things.
Father Billy Beane and daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). Billy hadn't heard his daughter sing before he buys her a new guitar, and similarly, Billy hadn't heard the true voice of baseball until he got this "team of misfits" that no one else would take on and see how they play the game and the game lets them win with the skills and talents they have. Billy buying the guitar for his daughter is like Billy buying a "new instrument" for baseball, a new game and a new way.
Billy Beane's daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) sings the song "Enjoy the Show," and on the surface, it's about her dad and mom (Robin Wright) being divorced and she's "caught in the middle" of two parents, but there's much more to this song:
The "little girl" is America because, remember, we're a young country, and we're caught in the middle of the Democrats and the Republicans as they tear this country apart, one piece of legislation at a time. "It's a lot to be something I'm not," is the United States being slowly forced into a socialist system when it's not, it never has been and never will be. So what is the show we are supposed to sit back and enjoy? It's not the "showdown" in Washington between political parties, it's history, because we are a part of it and making it, and we have to remember that everything we do, just like the Oakland A's, is going to be remembered.
Not many male actors would probably want to be next to Brad Pitt, which is its own bias. Mr. Pitt performed so well in this movie that, if Hollywood doesn't at least give him an Oscar nomination for this role, it will show Hollywood's bias against him.
One last accolade: Bennett Miller, like the Oakland A's, takes methods of directing that haven't been used in a long time and breathes new life in them by appropriately using them to the maximum benefit for greater character analysis: shots of Billy, very close up on his eyes, in the dark, shows that "he's searching but not finding anything," and when Peter is turning the baseball over in his hand, he's turning the game (its ins and outs) over in his mind (the hand is symbolic of his strength and Peter's strength is his brain) and letting Peter show Billy a metaphor even as the whole film is a metaphor. There are tons of other examples, like casting Jonah Hill to be opposite of Brad Pitt to illustrate to us the viewers our own biases when it comes to watching movies and who should be in leading parts and who shouldn't. Mr. Miller, thank you.
Like a coach who doesn't know where his next win is going to come from, the American economy doesn't know where it's next break in the recession is going to come from,...or when.
"Do you believe in this thing or not?" Billy asks Peter, and Peter says, "Yes, I believe in it." And that's a question for every American right now: do we believe in capitalism or do we want socialism?" and that is not a rhetorical question, we have to answer that and stick with it, and remember what makes the great game of capitalism so successful: each of us, with our own, unique skills, gifts and talents, using them for the benefit of ourselves and every one else. When we are on the bottom, underneath the 50 feet of crap, that's when we shine and we perform our best.