A few years ago I conceived an idea for a screenplay about the Australian one day cricket squad. This team was on top of the world, but was ripped apart by corruption and scandal and had their numbers and morale destroyed. Upon losing a game to some minnows from Holland, cricket was essentially abandoned in Australia, until the sole remaining quality player was sought to come out of the wilderness, rebuild the team and take on the world again. Triumph against the odds, getting the band back together, defeating the critics, restoring the faith, all that. The idea came after seeing Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday and being impressed how Stone got the viewer directly involved in the action and how audiences unfamiliar with the game of American football could follow the narrative and enjoy what was on screen. I figured the same thing could be done with cricket. Seven years later, the script was complete and it would have been an ideal part for Heath Ledger to take on, but we all know what happened there. And to this day, that’s the only reason the film was never made. *Cough*.
What that screenplay did was encompass all the structures and clichés of the traditional sports comedy, and any kind of sports film: first act defeat; second act recruitment of new team; third act triumph – right down to the victory coming from the last play on the last game. It was clichéd, but I tried to make it funny. The thing about a majority of sports films is that they follow a fairly tried and true formula (illustrated above). Can you count the number of times that it’s the final pitch, kick or punch that ultimately brings victory, and is delivered in slow motion, perhaps in silence? That the silence is broken by contact and shattered by triumphant music … Sometimes it’s very effective, sometimes it’s just clichéd. It’s a fine line and it takes skilled film makers to traverse it. Moneyball skews from most of these clichés and established formulas, and in doing so makes a valuable point about its story – you don’t have to play the game the way it’s always been played. Thinking outside the box can sometimes pay dividends. It certainly did for the 2002 Oakland A’s, and it does, superbly with Moneyball.
The biggest challenge I’m faced with in writing about this film is how to not fill it with marketing hyperbole. That’s the problem. I can’t. It’s the best film I’ve seen in more than a year. It’s Brad Pitt’s best performance. It shows Bennett Miller as being a director of note who is nothing if not consistent (his 2005 Capote was a superb piece of work). It’s another incredible piece of writing from Aaron Sorkin, whose script with Steven Zaillian is literate, funny and moving. It’s a huge step up for Jonah Hill, who had only played comic roles before this, and shows a depth and range you wouldn’t expect from him. It’s right up there with the best sports movies I’ve ever seen. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of work.
This is a film which celebrates the underdog, the means and bravery of approaching matters differently, of swimming against the tide. And much like Sorkin’s last script (The Social Network), it takes a potentially dull subject (in the earlier film, two nerds making a website; in this one, using statistics to build a world-class baseball team) and makes it fascinating.
Moneyball is not only a film for sports fans or baseball fans, and you certainly don’t have to be a fan of either to appreciate this. It’s a film for film fans, for people who can look past the awful trailer for Jack and Jill before it and know that there are in 2011, still great American film makers creating great American films.