Monday, 25 February 2013

Sorkin Who? or Show Me The Moneyball!

Statistics and Sorkin?  There was no way I wasn't going to get round to seeing this.

Except... it's not very Sorkiny, is it? Maybe it's Zaillian's influence - an entirely solid writer, but not a particularly flashy pen - but Moneyball's dialogue manages to be economical and engaging, but never particularly rhythmic or funny.  Not that the film's trying to be funny, in fairness, but the end result would be difficult to recognise as involving Sorkin had his name not been in the credits. Even the occasional scene that bears a familiar Sorkin structure - the multiple rapid-fire calls to baseball managers Beane and Brand make as they shuffle players around and off the board being the most obvious one - seem strangely muted.  This might just be a function of Miller's direction, of course.  That said, Sorkin's writing has been getting increasingly austere of late in any case; you can draw a straight line through Studio 60... to Charlie Wilson's War to The Social Network to The Newsroom, with the former being indistinguishable from The West Wing except in whether anybody liked it, and each successive product drifting further and further from rapid-fire banter spat out in corridors.

Which is a shame, because as Sorkin himself has claimed, he's neither a top tier dramatist nor a top tier comedy writer, and his writing works as well as it does because of how good he is at mixing the two. Studio 60...'s biggest failing was both that the set-up relied to much on the comedy, and that his resulting instinct to up the drama didn't work at all in context, particularly after the West Wing (the question of how things would have turned out if you swapped Studio 60... and Sportsnight around in the chronology is an interesting one).  I don't know if the critical and commercial failure of Studio 60... (which continues to be underrated; it's not great, but it's frequently pretty good) led to a deliberate shift in tone - one which did no damage to The Social Network, but made The Newsroom feel a little too cold and distant at times - but there seems to be no sign of it stopping, and it ends up hurting Moneyball.

Or so it seems to me.  Perhaps I'm just ill-suited to judge the film, having little interest in baseball and plenty of interest in the sort of statistical juggling employed by Brand.  Emphasising the former and skirting around the particulars of the latter is unquestionably the right choice for the film to have made, and exactly the wrong way round for me to really appreciate it.  Like a foot fetishist watching Top Heavy Sluts 4, I understand utterly why the camera is focusing in the area it is, but I which they'd point us downward a little more often.

(Spoilers - by which I mean mention of historical events - below the fold)

Having said all that, though, Moneyball gets major points for what it does say on the topic of statistics, namely that an awful lot of people are willing to say the most objectionably stupid things on air in order to demonstrate their opposition to it. There's one scene here where Brand is ecstatic after the Oakland Athletics beat the record for consecutive wins, and Beane sits there stony-faced because he knows that if they don't win the last game of the season, everyone will conclude their method is a failure. And, of course, he's right.  When Stephen Colbert joked that "the last thing that happened is the only thing that has ever happened", he was skewering the problem with the American media no less surely than he did at the infamous White House Correspondent's Dinner. We learn here that this is just as true of the sporty types as it is the unctuous, smugly arrogant ilk of George Will and David Brooks (who's "statisticians think they're magicians" really deserved a cameo here, if only so the credits could list him as "Mathematically Illiterate Bellend #2").  A model that improves a team's performance, nets a world record, and gets them to the final against a team spending almost six times as much per win, is utterly worthless if that final goes against them, or so we're told.

The message of the film, none too subtle in its application, is that these people are pricks and they are dinosaurs, and they will all soon be dead and no-one will care.  Doubtless some out there will have decried this as typical Sorkin sermonising, but fuck it: these people are scum.  Propagandists for the cause of just not really having to think too much, or reflect at all on what little thinking you do.  Banner bearers for insular, arrogant ignorance.   They simply cannot be called out as the worthless anti-thinkers they are too often, and I don't care for a second that it matters less when discussing baseball team picks than it does an international arms treaty or the fate of the social security net.

So that bit I loved.  Everything else I... kinda liked.  Jonah Hill does pretty well in an almost entirely straight role, the film wrings about as much drama and tension out of a story which mainly consists of the team in question kicking ass (not exactly the easiest thing to turn into dramatic conflict), and while the subplot of Beane's relationship with the daughter he sees all too rarely is strangely underdeveloped, that's probably for the best; Sorkin's treatment of kids always veers too much towards the saccharine no matter how precocious he makes them. Maybe a film I find enjoyable despite Sorkin steering clear of humor and focussing on a foreign sport I know almost nothing about is in itself a victory.  Even so, I find it hard to understand what all the fuss is about.

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