“Moneyball,” the new movie about baseball, does something that few Hollywood films do: It respects and celebrates innovation and entrepreneurship.
Hollywood sends us lots of movies full of battlefield honor and dishonor, sagas of heroes in funny costumes, silly yarns about slackers, quests for love and/or sex, and any number of inspiring sports stories. But rarely does it produce good movies about the workplace. For something that occupies a third of our lives and much of our waking energy, the workplace is relegated to a depressing backdrop or screwball setting.
Where are the profiles of men and women compelled by a mixture of ambition and madness to create something great and change the world?
At least one screenwriter gets it a little. Aaron Sorkin, who brought us “The West Wing,” profiled Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in last year’s “The Social Network.” Now he turns his attention to baseball in “Moneyball,” opening today.
Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, a once-promising first draft pick who fizzled out in Major League play. As general manager of the Oakland A’s, Beane hates losing games, but he lacks the money to compete with teams like the Yankees or Red Sox for top-tier players.
When Beane hires Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Harvard-educated economist, things change. Instead of relying on scouts’ intuition and experience to hire players, the two develop mathematical formulas to fill in the holes in their roster. Just as everyone tut-tuts at them for stealing the soul of baseball, the team starts winning. Their record-breaking winning streak inspires their fans and convinces the naysayers.
Based on a true story as related in the best-selling book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, the movie will engage people who aren’t rabid baseball fans. Part of its charm comes from excellent performances by Pitt and Hill, who create full-blooded, relatable characters.
Acting alone doesn’t make a baseball film compelling, however. We relate because Billy Beane is chasing something greater than himself.
Beane loves his chosen profession. He wants to do well in it, to gain respect, to make money. All these things motivate him, but as he tells Brand, “I want it to matter.” He wants to change his little corner of the world.
The desire to build something great and to leave a professional legacy motivates Americans of all walks of life. We’re all about self-made men and rags-to-riches women. We love stories of the high school dropout who became a millionaire or the single mom who now runs a multimillion-dollar company.
But where are these movies? Where is the story of Henry Ford, who made a fortune while changing the world? To bring it closer to home, no one has had more impact on our times than Bill Gates. The world would not be the same had he not chased his Big Idea from his plucky garage workshop to global dominance to charitable giant. Talk about a story!
Most of our working heroes in film, however, are determined underdogs taking on capitalists, like Erin Brockovich and her crusade against pollution, or “Tucker,” chasing his dream while fighting big auto corporations. We have lots of movies about the dark side of capitalism — and there certainly is a dark side — but the world isn’t all sweatshops and corporate liars. Truly good films respect ambition while fearing the depths to which it might lead. The film widely considered to be the greatest ever, “Citizen Kane,” ably shows the glory and the madness of chasing a Big Idea.
The irony is particularly rich because filmmakers are some of the biggest capitalists in the world. Anyone who has ever negotiated a film contract knows everybody wants more than their fair share of the pie. But the Steven Spielbergs, James Camerons and George Lucases of the world want more than cash. They come to Tinseltown chasing a Big Idea. They certainly want to make money, but they also want to advance filmmaking, make something great and change their part of the world.
They’re not all that different from a guy who starts a fast-food chain or an airline or figures out a way to win baseball games.
Hopefully there will be more movies like “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” coming down the pike. After all, isn’t it a little sad that the greatest American business family portrayed on film is the Corleones of “The Godfather” trilogy?
Rebecca Cusey is a movie critic and entertainment reporter.