Moneyball (2011)

We may never lose again.

So says a fan-made poster in one of the archival shots from Bennett Miller’s Moneyball. It’s a yellow poster with green marker-drawn capital letters on it, held overhead by an unseen Oakland A’s fan. Though the film seamlessly incorporates newly-shot game footage into the ancient history of 2002, the majority of the footage in this particular montage is real. Fans hold posters, they exchange high-fives; players whack homers, they round bases, they exchange high-fives. The A’s were on an unprecedented winning streak, crushing every team they met and hurtling towards an unheard-of twenty wins in a row. The sequence in Moneyball is dubbed simply “The Streak”:

We may never lose again. It’s a romantic, contagious idea, this notion of winning. The real-life guy who wrote that on a poster had caught the bug, and just about everyone else did too. First baseman Scott Hatteberg (portrayed in Moneyball by a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Chris Pratt) echoed the sentiment in an interview from that same day, taken here from this New York Times article that likewise captures the winning bug of the A’s: “[the opposing team] could put up a 10-spot against us in the first inning, and we’d still think we could win.” Author Joe LaPointe puts another (la)point(e) on it: “Any fan from any era could appreciate what is unfolding.” And, back in the context of Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane repeats a single question several times that gets to the heart of the matter: “How can you not get romantic about baseball?”

Moneyball brilliantly captures that fever and, more importantly, transmits it through the screen: we’re as swept up in this as LaPointe, as Hatteberg, as Beane, as that guy with the yellow poster. Not to be too breezy or grandiose about it, but that’s what good art is all about. For the winning bug to be communicable at all from the actual 2002 A’s to someone in a movie theater today, Moneyball has to catch the bug too. Moneyball has to be sick enough with the magic of winning that it passes it on to us, whether we’ve been immunized against it or not.

This is one of the reasons Moneyball is a fresh entry in Aaron Sorkin’s filmography, as few of his other works — however well A Few Good Men, Charlie Wilson’s War, or The Social Network might be received — can truly be said to simultaneously convey and inspire the same kind of fervor. This, funnily enough, is not too breezy or grandiose — theaters full of moviegoers in Oakland reportedly cheered along with “The Streak” when Miller’s film screened on opening weekend, the cinema transforming in that moment into a baseball stadium. If Sorkin’s writing and Miller’s directing blends to make Moneyball into a nine-inning adventure, then “The Streak” is the bottom of the eighth. The home team has it, they have the win, and yet there’s still another inning of game to be played. Having watched the Red Sox, my home team, for the majority of my life, I know well not to pop the champagne in the eighth inning of any game.

And yet that eighth-inning few-runs-up nothing-can-go-wrong feeling is what winning’s all about, and that’s the sentiment expressed in the statements above and the sentiment championed by Moneyball. Will the A’s really never lose again? Of course not. But when you’re heading in that direction it’s difficult to be objective about winning, and when everyone around you is also heading in that direction it’s downright impossible. We got this, you say in that bottom of the eighth. We did it.

The fact that this mirrors Billy Beane’s personal struggle shows Sorkin’s adeptness with his thematic material, and suggests that Moneyball would be contagious whether it was about baseball or football or any other sport or something that’s not a sport at all. Billy has been swept up in the eighth inning before and been severely burned in the ninth, and yet he’s still helpless — as we all are — when winning happens. Sorkin’s other films haven’t really had an opportunity to convey that, and Miller’s haven’t really either. Miller’s Foxcatcher, upon rewatching the film after last year’s NYFF premiere, essentially has the opposite effect: there’s nothing here to get swept up in, nothing contagious or pulse-raising about the way the story is committed to film. It’s cold, and perhaps that’s better suited to the story of Foxcatcher. But the story of Moneyball is a contagiously optimistic one, despite whatever setbacks Billy Beane endured, and Sorkin and Miller recognized that their film had to echo the passion and fervor of everyone in that stadium.

How can you not get romantic about that?

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