#cinefile: moneyballs

my intentions have been noble, but the reality is that i’m getting behind with the film reviews that i’d like to be offering you.

therefore, here are some very brief thoughts on some films i’ve seen recently that offer little else than you would find in any film column or blog anywhere, followed by some more developed ones about one film that few others seem to have had.

o Snowtown is not that similar to Animal Kingdom, but almost as brilliant.
o the intriguing if odd mix of common dystopian themes in In Time comes out a little too po-faced to be properly engaging. however, i still have mad love for JT and Cillian Murphy.
o Ides of March is both less like Julius Caesar and more dull than i’d expected.
o while Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is painfully cliché ridden and predictable, at least this time no-one wears a prosthetic face that makes them look like Philip French. or do they?!

and so, to the matter at hand: Moneyball *SPOLIERS ahoy*

i’ve always liked Brad Pitt (often despite his films) and nowadays he’s the new Robert Redford. his performance here is strong (if a little face-touchy) as are those turned in by Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, although, in truth, none of the roles is exactly demanding with the latter’s barely requiring that he break, as it were, a metaphorical ‘trot’.

so, the acting is solid and engaging and, what is more, things are shot very nicely too – a fact that will not surprise those that noticed the name Wally Pfister in small letters on the poster.

some advice for those who don’t take notice of cinematographers: a) you should b) Wally Pfister is the guy that made pretty much all of Chris Nolan’s films look nice c) yes, it is an amusing name.

so far then my assessment is in agreement with most critics, a facet that i will complete by emphasising that Moneyball is not, repeat not, a baseball film. should i want to remain in the same groove as all the critics i’ve read/listened to, however, i’d say that what it is really a film about is statistics.

the trouble is, it’s not. it’s really a film about why, despite everything, late-capitalism is good.

the subtitle of the largely biographical book on which the film is based is The Art of Winning An Unfair Game. as the film explains right from the off, the ‘unfair’ bit refers to the fact that the Oakland As (the baseball team managed by Brad Pitt’s failed-baseball-prodigy character, Billy Beane) are a small franchise in comparison to the big-boys of Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and so on.

“There are the rich teams”, Beane explains to his apparently overly-optismistic staff, “there are the poor teams, then there is fifty feet of crap, and then there is us. It’s an unfair game.”

what, it turns out, this essentially means is that as GM of the As Beane has around $50m a year to pay his players, where as the Yankees have more like $125m. this discrepancy is the source of the apparent ‘unfairness’ of Major League Baseball.

now it’s not that i’m unsympathetic to the idea that its unfair that some people have more money than others – on the contrary – but it’s just that that’s not the kind of thing i’d expect to be widely recognised within either the Baseball or Hollywood fraternities.

i mean Baseball is the great American pastime and Hollywood the great American mirror, but Capitalism is the great American way of life. surely when it comes to one company being more wealthy than another, fairness doesn’t come into it?

perhaps, then, this was going to be a shockingly counter-cultural, anti-Capitalist tale?

well. the ‘solution’ to this injustice that the real Beane got from his boss, but the fictional Beane gets from a plucky, young, Yale-educated stat-hound called Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), who in-turn borrow it from a renegade sports author called Bill James, lies not in feeble flesh and blood, but simple, noble numbers.

if we ignore the conventional wisdom of scouts and sports analysts, Brand insists, we can put together a championship winning baseball team for relatively little money (NB: it is VITAL to remind yourself during the film that ‘no money’ still means millions of dollars).

the key to this ‘thrift’ is to cut through the layers of standard, misguided romance/hubris/superstition by ignoring the vagaries of the game, the players, etc. and simply utilising the purity of statistical data.

the chronic weaknesses of the normal approach are illustrated by virtue of parallel reflections on drafting and trading – the main two ways MLB teams get their players.

‘drafting’ refers to ‘the draft’, which, for those unfamiliar, is a system used in many American sports whereby the top, young amateur players are offered contracts by the pro franchises, who receive picks in a certain order. in Major League Baseball, the order is the reverse of the standings from the previous year, with the team with the worst record having the first pick, and so on. when each team has picked one player, that ’round’ ends and the process begins again until the talent pool is exhausted. this year, for example, this process lasted for fifty rounds and decided the fates of 1530 amateur players.

Beane, flashbacks show us, once ‘had it all’ and as such was hailed, even out of high-school, as baseball’s next big thing and drafted in the first round by the New York Mets. regrettably, it turned out that he couldn’t handle the pressure of the ‘big-leagues’ and his career floundered.

as such, Billy is himself a walking, talking, brooding example of the fact that the scouts and ‘experts’ don’t always get it right: cue “you don’t know for sure, man, I mean not for sure, for sure, you know, man” etc.

in a key scene, Beane – who turned down a Stanford scholarship to accept a large cheque from the Mets – asks Brand how he would have rated him as a rookie. Brand coyly admits that he would have recommended him for the ninth round, not the first, which would have made Stanford the more attractive option.

then we watch Beane and his team of coaches and scouts rank the currently available talent. it’s a charming but clunky round-table scene in which wizened old American men say “I like Cortez – pure swing”. “Robinson has great feet and a strong arm”, and such.

at the rhetorical and didactic peak of the scene, one man speaks out against a proposed player because he has an ugly girlfriend, which, it is suggested, is a sure sign of a lack of confidence. “I just don’t like the girlfriend. When the girl is a six-at-best like this, it’s never a good sign”. an anecdotal nail in the coffin of the romance of the game ‘as is’.

sweeping aside all this prejudice, pseudo-art and quackery, Beane takes Brand’s advice and picks his team using only statistics. they seek out cheap players who have a high .OBP (‘on base percentage’). Brand produces some complicated looking equations that boil down to one number – the average frequency with which each batter is required to get ‘on base’ in order for the team to exceed the average number of wins necessary to be the champions in an average season.

using this number, Brand and Beane set about identifying players who achieve the required score, but are underrated because of other issues – ugly girlfriends, being too old, too fat, too ill-disciplined, etc – which make them cheap.

Brand describes their dream-team as “an island of misfit toys” – cue the soaring, jangly music and we see that romance has not been banished, but its perception is simply being reversed. in order to prevent us from seeing this as a tale about the replacement of human interests with the cold, harsh, impersonal efficiency of mathematics, the protagonists are portrayed as heroic for recognising the true talent (beauty) of those the system has overlooked or rejected. this, however, is a convenient fiction.

once the venture is set in motion, and the team built, pathos is added as the patchwork, collection of Raggy Dolls and rejects lose. and lose. and lose. cue commentator’s voice over the top of choppy losing-montage “They had an idea and they tried it, but it has failed. You cannot pick a baseball team on the basis of numbers.”

from our insider perspective, however, we know what the commentators don’t. the failures are the result of the team manager’s lack of belief in the system. Art Howe, played by Hoffman, refuses to bow to the numbers, and rearranges the roster of available players in line with his own, traditional perspective.

failing to convince him to do his bidding, Beane simply trades Howe’s preferred players to other teams, forcing him to fall in line.

as the film/season progresses and the new philosophy proves takes hold, there is a dramatic change in the team’s fortunes and they go from bottom of their division to its top, breaking a 100-year record by completing twenty consecutive victories.

so the definitely-not-a-sports-film does have a quintessentially sports-film-esque cliché. and with that, the romance returns, right? well not for me.

whichever way you square it – and Moneyball tires all kinds of ways – there is no getting away from the fact that at its core, the story is about the potential benefits to a company that result from treating its employees like numbers instead of like people. in the course of the film, players are traded and cut without the slightest concern for their interests. by the end i was thinking that at least the chauvinistic scout had noticed that the player had a girlfriend; at least he’d thought of him as human.

essentially what the Beane of the film does is ruthlessly remove all processes or working norms that treat his employees as anything other than numbers on a page. he invests everything the company has and takes every risk possible to establish himself as an impassive calculator with the power to add, subtract and dividing his staff at will.

he makes himself blind to any other aspect of the game and is guided only by the desire for the best statistical edge the money he has can offer. this sort of behaviour ringing any bells? what is more, it’s made fairly clear that he does all of this primarily as a result of the mental trauma caused by his own failure as a player (hmmmm, Dr Freud).

of course, in the film (and apparently in real life) the gamble pays off. despite the fact that the statistics concerned describe a slight, average advantage over a long period (i.e. long enough for natural variance to oven out) and the system treats all negative effects from other factors: form, health, happiness, etc. as ‘externalities’, the team performs massively beyond expectation over a very short period of time. oh, and the system gets the credit.

in truth, the change is so rapid and profound, that i would have thought any statisticians would want to look for another explanation other than the small, average edge the team had when it came to ‘getting on base’. however: first, when the team is losing everyone hates the system, then when the team is winning, everyone loves it. as a poker player the first lesson i learned was not to be results orientated – if you play well, your edge is profitable over time. the rest is just luck.

anywho, despite a dramatically successful season, the team loses in the first round of the post-season playoffs, failing to realise Beane’s dreams of a championship win. but, Beane and Brand (who then completely disappears into the background), have successfully proven their point. their approach, some captions tell us before the credits, has gone on to revolutionise baseball.

at the story’s conclusion Beane rejects a $12.5m offer from the Red Sox that, if accepted, would have made him the best paid sports GM in history. he does it partly because of his family, partly because of his desire to stay with the As and win a championship there, but mainly because he once made a decision based on money, and will never make the same error again.

perhaps, therefore, this undoes my theory that Moneyball is an apology for finance capitalism? well perhaps. however, if we learned anything from Wall Street in the 80s (the movie), Nick Leeson in the 90s and Wall Street in the 00s (the place), it should be that derivatives traders, hedge-fund managers and other late-capitalist apparatus, are not primarily motivated by money.

as Leeson and many others that followed in his footsteps more recently have admitted, what they were doing became nothing to do with money – instead it became a numbers game; a game that it became worth risking everything to win. now, i’m not saying traders would do it for the love – they are handsomely paid – but then it’s not their own money that they gamble with.

Beane might turn down the 12.5m, but he remains the GM of an MLB team, a job that commands a six figure salary. for me, the most telling line in the film is delivered by Arliss Howard who plays Red Sox owner John Henry. prior to Beane turning down Henry’s offer, they are chatting and Beane raises the fact that he had hear that Henry had hired Bill James, the guy who wrote the book from which Brand had originally derived the idea. Henry responds that he has no idea why it took someone so long to hire James. “Well”, Beane retorts, “baseball hates him.” Here is Henry replies:

“Yeah, well baseball can hate him. One of the great things about money is that it buys a lot of things; one of which is the luxury to disregard what baseball likes and doesn’t like, what baseball thinks and doesn’t think.”

ladies and gentlemen, i give you Moneyball or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Finance Capitalism.

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