Tag Archives: aaron sorkin

Thoughts on "Moneyball," a true inside baseball story

With any film adaptation, the question of the film’s reverence to the source material is inevitably raised. When the source material is as controversial as Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, this is doubly true. But this is a film review, not a comment on “Moneyball” or sabermetric analysis* so I’ll leave the criticisms of the original book, from both sides (the merits of sabermetrics, whether Billy Beane’s contributions are overstated, etc), alone.

The two films that come to mind when viewing Moneyball are The Blind Side (also adapted from a Lewis book) and The Social Network (also adapted from a Aaron Sorkin script).

In the same way that Michael Oher’s story breathes life into a book about the development of the left tackle, the colorful characters that made up the 2002 Oakland Athletics illuminate the most important development in a generation of baseball: the reliance on advanced statistics over business-as-usual scouting and intuition. While the film of The Blind Side focuses on the emotional melodrama of Michael Oher’s life, the film version of Moneyball is the opposite: those characters are largely absent from the film, with the notable exception of Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt). Instead, the film’s protagonist is GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), with a major supporting role for the fictional Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). And despite a few key scenes with Beane’s daughter, the film doesn’t rely on the smarmy, inspirational tone favored by The Blind Side.

Moneyball is both a baseball movie and an underdog story, yet it never is reduced to the cliches of those genres. For the most part, this is the story of what happens in the front office – not the field. Like The Social Network, the film is a dynamic take on what should be a bland topic, at least on paper. Even with Sorkin’s rewrite, unfortunately, the dialogue isn’t as snappy as that of The Social Network – and maybe that’s alright. These aren’t Harvard entrepreneurs. The lone Ivy grad character is Brand (the Yale economist who resembles the real life Paul DePodesta) and Hill’s dweebish portrayal is heavy on awkward, not assertive. Pitt’s Beane is as cocky and direct as his real life counterpart, with the fiery temper that doomed his professional career.

Still, the film feels incomplete, with many character arcs reduced to just a few points. Take Hatteberg, for example: the film shows his meeting with Beane, some awkward first base training, a little confidence building, and a winning home run. Manager Art Howe (an underutilized Philip Seymour Hoffman) opposes Beane’s new approach to baseball, has a few confrontations with him, and finally relents. Even Beane’s journey leaves the audience wanting: a few angry drives in his truck aren’t enough to fill in the blanks of his character. It’s as the script tries to do too much, leaving it disjointed.

But like the 2002 A’s, Moneyball is fun to watch. The relationship between Beane and Brand is never sentimentalized; Pitt and Hill have surprisingly good chemistry, which is reassuring since the pair have the most scenes in the film. Director Bennett Miller gives the film an almost documentary-like precision, relying on the romance of the sport film only where appropriate. I would have liked to see what Steven Soderbergh and Steve Zaillian (American Gangster, Gangs of New York, among others) would have done with the project, but the Miller-Sorkin pairing is more than capable of telling the story of Moneyball, scoring by stringing together a couple of singles but never hitting a home run.

Moneyball hits theaters on September 23.

*I’m a true believer when it comes to the importance of sabermetrics, even if Beane wasn’t the first one in baseball (or even in his own organization) to utilize such advanced statistics. A clip of Joe Morgan’s boneheaded dismissal of Beane and sabermetrics plays over a key scene in the film like nails on a chalkboard.

The Social Network: How a great film still doesn't get it right

In late 2008, I winced at the news that Aaron Sorkin would be writing a film about Facebook. A masterful writer, with such a unique voice, reduced to making a movie about a website that wasn’t even five years old? It seemed premature, like penning a script while the story was still being told. The edition of a true auteur (David Fincher) behind the camera and a favorite musician (Trent Reznor) behind the score did little to allay my fears that this was just a cash-in.

In late 2010, I avoided The Social Network, even as it gained critical and commercial plaudits. I finally caved, screening the film a few months ago. I was impressed, mostly at how Sorkin, Fincher and Reznor, along with an extremely talented cast of young actors, gave life to a story that shouldn’t work as a film.

The Social Network uses two depositions to frame the origin story of Facebook. Sorkin is the perfect writer for this script. He has experience writing legal drama, including both the most famous courtroom dialogue and most famous deposition ever captured on film. Like all Sorkin characters, these characters are preternaturally silver-tongued, relying on wit, word play and repetition to battle each other.

The opening scene, between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), sets the score. Mark is playing verbal chess, seemingly plagued by ADD, OCD, and Asperger’s syndrome. This behavior continues throughout the film, in flashbacks and in depositions: he’s immature but brilliant, and supremely confrontational. As Rashida Jones‘ character will later surmise: “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”

The film is a portrait of friendship under siege, and the best scenes revolve around Mark and his “only friend,” Eduardo Saverin. Andrew Garfield plays the role with the right combination of suaveness and insecurity. Garfield captures the emotional pain of Mark’s betrayal, made worse by his unclear motivations and intentions.

The humor of the film comes from the farcical portrayals of Mark’s adversaries and allies, the Winklevoss twins and Sean Parker, respectively. The twins (and their case) are not sympathetic; they are stereotypical Harvard WASPs from a world where they are used to getting everything they want.

Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker with the confidence of someone whose self-awareness is greatly maligned by everyone telling him how brilliant he is. In actuality, he’s a punk: paranoid with delusions of grandeur, and armed with a petty, vindictive streak. At first, he’s almost charming. Later, he’s played for laughs, a manchild puffing his inhaler in a station house.

The story presents the early days of Facebook as a battle for Mark’s soul between Saverin and Parker. Saverin is a sensible realist who puts stock in loyalty and doing “the right thing.” Parker is the Dreammaker who shows Zuckerberg how things could be, how a Big Idea can change the way we look at the world. For Mark, a glimpse of Parker’s lifestyle is all it takes to settle the debate.

By the end of the film, the man with a million friends has none. He still pines for the girl who scorned him, her rejection the impetus for this incredible journey. The man who revolutionized social networking yearns for human connection.

Many people have gotten caught up in the authenticity of the film. But this is a work of reality-based fiction, not a documentary. From all accounts, Mark Zuckerberg is not much like his screen counterpart. He may have iconoclastic ideas about privacy and society, but he seems relatively well-adjusted for the world’s youngest billionaire. And “Erica?” He’s been dating the same person since 2003.

In film, this reduction of reality works. Sorkin has said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” As a storyteller, Sorkin is unparalleled. The characters are richly drawn, and the non-linear story builds to a crescendo over two hours. Similarly, David Fincher makes coding cool, without the parlor tricks of something like Hackers.

I don’t think a film needs to get history right to be a great film. If it actually loses to The King’s Speech, I think it will be another unfortunate choice by the Academy, not a historic flub.

But saying that this film defines the generation, as Peter Travers has, makes me feel the same way I did when I first heard about it back in 2008. Can we really make these grand proclamations while history is still unfolding, and furthermore, what business does Peter Travers have judging my/your/our generation based on this film?

Zadie Smith’s thoughts on The Social Network, and social networks in general, are a must read. One of her best points is that “this is a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people.” Lawrence Lessig made a similar argument in The New Republic, that the filmmakers miss the point of the Facebook story. Sorkin and Fincher see the Facebook generation as Zuckerberg as he is in the final scene: obsessed with connection, but lacking any authentic human ones. Saying The Social Network defines the generation is patronizing. The story of this generation is still being written, and Facebook might end up being another footnote in that story.