‘Moneyball’ and Good and Bad Sports Movies

 What’s the best sports movie?

Probably Hoosiers, right? If not Hoosiers, then maybe it’s Bull Durham, or The Natural, or even Chariots of Fire.

I like Hoosiers a lot. It probably is the best sports movie ever. But the actual basketball games are kind of annoying. We are made to understand the Hickory High team is winning by a montage of identical shots: someone on Hickory High shoots; cut to shot of ball going in hoop. We are informed that Hickory High is in trouble when one of the opposing players steals the ball (often by just tapping away a high, flat dribble, which the dribbler does not in any way resist), races down the length of the court, and makes a layup. This is the way we know the score in Movie Sporting Events. Football equivalent: Our Team’s Doing Bad=Other Team’s unblocked defender makes Crushing Hit in the backfield; often causing a fumble; often returned for a score. Our Team’s Doing Good=play-action fake which all eleven defenders bite hard on, and an 80-yard bomb to a receiver who has smoked his man by ten yards.

If there is one place in America that no one cares about sports, it might be Hollywood. They still have to make sports movies, though. The movies usually end up being about underdogs who beat all the odds. The actual sport is an afterthought.

All of which is fine—sometimes. Sports movies are excellent vehicles for all kinds of messages; spiritual, philosophical, and moral. If watching Field of Dreams made you feel pure or enlightened, then good for you. I prefer The Natural myself–the American Dream as spiritually exalting but ultimately corruptible:  what better lesson can you get from baseball than that?

But the Lord help you if you make a sports movie with bad sports AND a confused message. That’s what I thought Moneyball was: one more sports movie made by people with little interest in sports, but also shockingly little to say about anything else.

I was a little leery of Moneyball going in, because I already knew the details of the plot: during the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season, the team’s General Manager, Billy Beane, begins to rely on computer-tracked statistical analysis to fill out his roster. By doing so he competes against other teams with much bigger payrolls (The Yankees had a $ 125 million payroll to the A’s roughly $ 40 million total that year), and ends up with a highly successful team….which loses in the first round of the playoffs, just as they had the previous year.

Was Beane a revolutionary? The movie sometimes tries to paint him that way, but it backs off that assertion occasionally as well. No one would argue that statistics alone can pick a winner in sports, even in a sport as immersed in numbers as baseball. The most dramatic sports moment in the movie happens when the team’s manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann) makes an intuitional judgment by inserting a pinch-hitter into the lineup, who promptly hits a home run. That’s what they call ‘capturing lightning in a bottle.’ It’s what Tommy Lasorda did when he put in Kirk Gibson during the ninth inning of the 1988 World Series. It’s why they play the game, stat-cruncher!

There’s so very little actual baseball shown in Moneyball, and what is shown is so spotty and scattered and necessary only to corroborate the story line provided, that it’s probably a mistake to label this a sports movie at all. It’s more what I like to think of as Glam Nonfiction—a true story repackaged as contemporary fable. I generally find Glam Nonfiction (The Blind Side is another recent example) problematic. People like them because they’re hoodwinked into thinking what they’re watching actually happened—it’s real life, and thus more meaningful. But real life is highly inconsistent; movies must be consistent to make any sense. Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich is irresistibly appealing. The real Erin Brockovich was irresistibly appealing to just about half the people she dealt with; she pissed off the other half.

Walking into a movie like Moneyball, we should only be comfortable knowing that there once was a 2002 Oakland A’s baseball team and a man who put together its roster; the rest should really just be movie magic. Moneyball screws up by stringing together a bunch of consistent moments (many of the individual scenes are cinematically satisfying; there is an initially promising parallel story of Bean’s own past as a failed baseball prodigy) into an inconsistent screenplay, which does very little to work in meaningful themes. Ultimately, who cares if Billy Beane got front offices to start relying on numbers more? Sometimes I think I had the exact opposite reaction of what the filmmakers intended: when Beane shows up to a meeting with his grizzled, been-there-done-that scouting staff and tells them he’s going to ignore all of the hard work they’ve done that summer, I don’t get pissed off at them for being reactionaries; I get pissed off at Beane for acting like an a-hole.

I’m surprised at just how flat and uninspired the Moneyball screenplay is, considering Aaron Sorkin was a co-writer. He just made a bunch of shit up when writing the much better Social Network.

(One last note about the A’s 2002 season: They happened to have a starting pitching rotation of Barry Zito, Tim Hundson, and Mark Mulder that year; the best or second-best rotation in the majors. Moneyball fails to mention this once.)

Movies with Good Sports in Them

‘Movies with Good Sports in Them,’—that’s a really awkward phrase, but I can’t think of anything better to get across my meaning. What I’m talking about are movies that capture some of the qualities which make real sports entertaining.

Sports movies are dumb. The basketball is either going in the hoop, or clanking off the rim. But actual sports are incredibly complex. The basic pleasure in watching sports is watching someone prove they’re good at something. But just watching as the ball goes through the hoop doesn’t prove anything—it’s just an indication the basketball gods are on your side, for the time being. For sports to really work in a movie the visual story must be coherent, and big enough to capture the entire picture.

Three examples of movies which have good sports in them: Rocky, All the Right Moves, The Karate Kid.

All the Right Moves

Setting: Pennsylvania, coal mining country. Stefen Djordjovic (Tom Cruise) is a star high school cornerback on an ultimate blue-collar team. Stef is good enough to get a college scholarship, but he’s not that good; he admits as much while talking to college recruiters, quipping that the NFL doesn’t seem to have much of a taste for white 5’7” cornerbacks. He has a penchant for getting there a split second too early and committing pass-interference, which is established early on in a practice scene.

In the Big Game, Stef does something Very Wrong, and also something Very Right. He picks off a pass and returns it for a touchdown (I think—a little hazy here; the pick may have come during the other team’s final goal-line drive?), but also commits a dumb pass-interference (and argues with the refs about it) which allows the opposing team to score. It all seems to work out when the defense holds up at their own 1-yard line, and get the ball back with only a few seconds left. But tragically, on a safe run up the middle to run out the clock, the running back fumbles in his own end zone and the defense recovers for the winning score.

The scene of complete and total devastation in the locker room which follows is one of the most memorable locker-room scenes of all time. The coach (Craig T. Nelson) screams at the running back; Stef defends him, and claims no one is at fault; the coach blames Stef for the pass interference; Stef yells back that the coach screwed up by not taking a safety. This becomes the main conflict of the story: two people who are very good at what they do, but not perfect, take out their frustrations on each other.

The wonderful thing about All the Right Moves is how effectively the actual football game is used to showcase what’s going on with the characters. If Stef wasn’t so headstrong and cocksure he would’ve heeded Coach’s advice, and not committed pass interference. The coach really should’ve just taken a safety, and he is often portrayed as petty and uncaring—which has consequences. (Remember when Salvucci, the running back, gets arrested in school for armed robbery, and sarcastically thanks the Coach for all the help he’s given him?) Much of the rest of the movie goes by the standard Disney playbook, but the football scenes are excellent.

The Karate Kid

This might not jump out at you right away as a great sports movie, but it totally is!

The karate tournament which makes up the final chapter is dynamite, because it sets up the stakes so well, and it establishes how good Daniel and his blonde nemesis Johnny are. Everything is shot as montage, but the footage is all meaningful. We have four important players; Daniel, Johnny, Bobby (the second-best Cobra Kai participant) and this random Polynesian guy.

The opening scenes establish a bunch of ideas: 1) All of the Cobra Kai guys are good, and they are also arrogant and vicious. 2) Johnny is scary-good, scary-intense, and scary in general. 3)Daniel has an excellent opening fight, in which he gets a little roughed up, but then just takes over once he realizes that he’s much better than his opponent. 4)That Polynesian guy keeps popping up, doing impressive spin-kicks Ralph Macchio probably couldn’t have done if he had five years to prepare. It’s also a nice touch to show competitors taking in each other’s fights—Danny looks a little scared; Johnny is contemptuous.

Daniel eventually plows his way through the Cobra Kai guys, starting with an African-American kid (unfortunate to start with him like the Cobra Kai are a list of victims in a horror movie; but he probably didn’t have much of a future in the Aryan-vibe Cobra Kai anyways), and then all of the lower-level psychos, including that weaselly kid who has the ‘put him in a bodybag !’ line later on.

The semifinals pit Johnny against the Polynesian kid, and Daniel against Bobby. To this point the Polynesian kid has looked awesome (he has the most athletically impressive moves in the movie). Johnny destroys him. Then things get interesting: Creed tells Bobby to put Daniel ‘out of commission,’ by sweeping the leg. Bobby does so; he gets teary-eyed and apologizes (this is the moment when the whole Cobra Kai ethos starts to unravel); Mr. Miyagi heals Daniel-son; onto the title fight!

None of the individual moments are earth-shattering, but everything put together makes this an incredibly compelling contest. A hierarchy establishes itself. It really seems like Daniel is winning those fights, not being handed them by the screenwriter, and it seems like we’re growing more and more confident right alongside him. When Daniel wins that big-ass trophy at the end we feel like he’s earned it.

Rocky

All movie long, we get reminded that Rocky is not a boxer; he’s a brawler with no footwork and a huge left. When he climbs into the ring with Apollo Creed he is not just outclassed; he’s entering another universe.

Tiny clues that he might be able to make things interesting along the way: when Mickey explodes at Rocky in the gym, he says he had the talent to be a good fighter, but wasted it on being an enforcer for a small-time hood. The scene where Rocky beats the hanging slab of cow to a bloody pulp, captured by Diana Lewis and a news camera (Apollo’s trainer watches the footage with increasing interest).

We get told that World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed has never been beaten, and never been knocked out. This is a movie, so of course we should know he’s gonna get his ass knocked out by Rocky eventually, but I don’t think anyone watching it for the first time would predict it would happen when it does: Apollo dances and jabs with Rocky for twelve seconds or so in the opening round, “trying to give the crowd a show,” according to the play-by-play announcer, while Rocky stands there, apparently completely flummoxed. And then, twelve seconds in, Rocky nails Creed with a left uppercut which KNOCKS HIM OUT!

The rest of the boxing match is exciting, although highly unrealistic. Rocky would have died in the third round, taking that many direct shots to the head. But that moment when he knocks the champ out is worth the price of admission: it is validation for a lifetime of low-rent nothing.

I actually think there should be MORE sports movies. There’s so much dramatic possibility in the form. But it would be nice to have them made by people who care about sports, at least a little bit.

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About hubzbubz

Currently residing in Brooklyn.
This entry was posted in Movies, Reviews, Sports and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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