Alexander Payne got the obligatory backlash and then reverse-backlash for his Descendants this year. Meaning: people love it, people love to hate it, people love it because it’s hated. So it goes with popular films and the hype machine. I bring up The Descendants not for any direct comparison to Bennett Miller’s excellent (and better) Moneyball, but because one of the trademarks of that “third wave” of reactions to Payne’s film was the subtleness of his direction. No complaint there. It’s harder than it looks to direct a lightly comedic drama and not have it come off as some hackneyed Hugh Grant vehicle. It’s not my favorite Payne film by a long shot, but the man put together some beautiful moments.
The same can – and should – be said of Miller’s direction for Moneyball. It’s tough for me to gauge how much a non-baseball fan would like this film. Sure, all of the filmic elements are in place – great script, strong performances, etc – but it’s Miller’s handle on this material, where he treats it not as a Field of Dreams redux, but instead as a corporate suspense film, that raises it.
Sure, I let Miller off the hook too easily. There are moments in here – Hatteberg’s (Chris Pratt) big homerun, for example, is textbook sports film, with its expanded time, stadium lights, predicting music, and emphasis on the pure muscle of it all. But, while that scene is cathartic, it’s not the heart of the picture. The heart is in the back room talks and deals where Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane and Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand make baseball analytics cool.
From a structural standpoint, director Miller and screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (isn’t it only a matter of time before these guys remake His Girl Friday?) make some bold choices, the most obvious of which takes place during the third act and ostensibly skips what could be the most dramatic part of the film…if this were a sports film. This temporal ellipsis is what a) makes Moneyball less a sports film, and b) what sets it above its perceived peers – Miller/Sorkin/Zaillian have their baseball moment (see Hatteberg and “the streak”) and they don’t need another. What they do need is to make a point about Beane, his mindset, and the public’s take on his new moves – this structural play skips right on through the highlights of the baseball playoffs and brings us back to a man in his office.
Sorkin and Zaillian’s dialogue is great, of course. Check out this quick clip:
It tells a few “character” things about Beane – he knows the stats and not the players now. But better, it gives us the great ending line: “No problem.” It’s team-building, prosthelytizing avoiding, and hilarious non-comeback all at once. Plenty of subtext there, but mostly just a funny way to skirt the issue.
There are other clips I want to show, but they aren’t online yet. One great one is where Beane goes to visit his ex-wife and her current boyfriend. The scene is filled with subtext (Beane’s struggle to relate to his daughter, familial tensions), and also simple, but effective blocking using distance and sitting and standing.
Barring that, let’s take a look at another fine scene:
It’s a great monologue – using Brand’s story as a way to relate to Beane’s situation. It’s also a good example of when to state the subtext. We would get the metaphor, whether Brand tells Beane (and us) that it’s a metaphor or whether he doesn’t. But Sorkin and Zaillian have him state that it’s subtext anyway. Why? For one, it’s consistent with his character – he’s the kind of goofy, kind of insecure, but very smart supporting character. For another, Beane won’t react to it unless it’s direct – that’s consistent with his character. In short, the writers go against “the rules” of screenwriting here (don’t state your subtext) to support a stronger, more important “rule” (have consistent, believable characters).
The blocking in here is also very small, but quite good. Look at about 0:55 – 1:33. Tiny movements – Brand leans back, Beane leans forward, Beane leans back. Tiny shot changes – from a MCU to a CU on Beane. The cutting back and forth between the player on the screen and Beane. All of these increase the tension, but also make a direct equation – this guy on the screen is Beane, just transposed into a different situation. It’s stating the subtext visually.