As expected, Moneyball was one of the big winners during Tuesday's announcement of this year's Academy Award nominations. The film -- adapted from the bestselling book written by Michael Lewis -- scored six nominations, including a nod for best picture. Charismatic lead Brad Pitt -- whose portrayal of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane drew raves -- was also among those recognized for his work. He'll slug it out with good pal George Clooney and three others for the coveted Best Actor prize.
Count me among Moneyball's (seemingly few) detractors. I found the movie unbelievably slow and dreadfully inaccurate. I thought Pitt was solid but unspectacular. And I just didn't find myself interested in the film's climax. I wasn't emotionally invested.
Though I've yet to see all nine of this year's Best Picture nominees, Moneyball is, without question, my least favorite of those I've seen. As I got to thinking about it, it occurred to me that my least favorite Best Picture nominee last year was The Fighter -- director David O. Russell's account of the life, and early career of Massachusetts boxer "Irish" Micky Ward. And the year before last, I didn't much care for another Michael Lewis adaptation, The Blind Side -- which told the remarkable story of Baltimore Ravens left tackle Michael Oher's impoverished upbringing. That film was a contender for Best Picture honors in 2010.
It's not that I don't like sports. Quite the contrary. I love sports. At 3:30 a.m. yesterday, while you were, most likely, sound asleep, I was taking in the match between the two great tennis titans Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open. Football, baseball, boxing, tennis, golf, horse racing (which I cover from time-to-time), you name it. I'm down to watch pretty much any athletic competition anytime, anywhere.
Sports movies, however, just don't do it for me -- at least those that are based on true stories. With the exception of Raging Bull and Rudy, most of my personal favorite sports films -- Rocky, Bull Durham, The Natural, and Million Dollar Baby, among others -- are works of fiction. And in the cases of Raging Bull and Rudy, I had very little knowledge of the subject matter prior to viewing the films.
There are two major reasons why sports fans, in my estimation, tend to be tougher critics of sports movies than the rest of the movie going public. The first is their inability to suspend disbelief. Our enjoyment of a film depends on our ability to suspend disbelief. Sports movies based on true stories are at a severe disadvantage in this regard. Many of us are acutely aware of every last detail of a sports film. Sports fans are conditioned that way. It's in our DNA.
When Ray Liotta, as "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, steps into the batters' box on Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams as a righty, the sports fan is left pulling their hair out -- knowing that Jackson actually batted left-handed. This seemingly trivial historical oversight shouldn't deter one from enjoying Field of Dreams. But many sports fans can't help but dwell on errors like that. Such errors serve to distract. Any moment spent thinking about a historical faux pas is a moment spent not paying complete attention to the happenings onscreen.
Of course, not all sports movie misrepresentations are so innocuous. Take Moneyball. Its premise was that Beane, along with protege Paul DePodesta (who did not consent to his likeness being used in the movie, so his character was named "Peter Brand," played by Oscar nominee Jonah Hill), was able to outfox rival general managers by building the Oakland A's in a manner that placed less of a premium on traditional baseball wisdom, and more of an emphasis on hard, statistical analysis. Players that were seemingly more accomplished were dumped from the A's roster in favor of players like Scott Hatteberg (portrayed by the brilliant Chris Pratt), solely because they had a knack for getting on base.
The A's won 103 games in the 2002 season depicted in Moneyball. And we are left with the impression that Billy Beane is the biggest genius since the guy who invented the Slap Chop. (Laugh if you must. That thing is awesome!) Trouble is, not once does Moneyball mention the three players who, far and away, were the most valuable players on that team -- pitchers Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. The trio combined to win a staggering 57 games in 2002, with Zito, for his part, capturing the American League's Cy Young award. Hudson was already on the A's roster when Beane assumed control in 1997. And although he did select Zito and Mulder in Major League Baseball's annual Amateur Draft, neither selection could be construed as an act of genius. Each was a top 10 draft choice -- meaning that many teams had the hurlers pegged as can't-miss stars.
As for Hatteberg -- he hit a gargantuan (not) 15 homers in 2002, while driving in 61 runs and batting .280. Such mediocrity was obviously dealing with, though, for the A's to benefit from Hatteberg's amazingly astounding .374 on base percentage! (Neither amazing, nor astounding. He was 13th in the American League in that category in '02.)
Exercising dramatic license is one thing. The depiction of wholesale fabrications, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. It is the latter that many sports fans find intolerable, and which ultimately prevents them from embracing movies like Moneyball.
More importantly, though, it's hard to get too wrapped up in a movie if you know how it ends before you've seen it. While it's true that many of the best sports movies make the games a secondary part of the movie, they're still crucial, no matter how little a director tries to emphasize them. If we don't care about a character's on-the-field fate (because we know it in advance), we are less likely to care about their off-the-field fate.
The drama of sports lies in the unknown. The winners and losers are often separated by such finite units as inches and seconds. By that margin (or in that span), certain players earn instant hero status, while others are made to be the goat. Sports movies whose outcomes are known in advance can never duplicate, or even approach this intense drama.
Moneyball is wise not to try, relying instead on the relationships Beane cultivated with his adorable (and musically gifted) daughter and Peter Brand to carry the day. But in the end, it's hard for a sports fan not to admit they'd rather be watching an actual game.
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