They used to make movies about baseball. It was Hollywood's sport as much as it was America's. Filmmakers saw in baseball what they did in their own work: a tempered build, a sweeping narrative, a rumbling denouement and a resolution that tugged at emotion, good, bad, sometimes both.
It was how, within a 10-month span between 1988 and 1989, the industry saw fit to release three movies that built their characters around a dusty diamond. "Bull Durham" came first in June 1988, and it is the film version of a funambulist, somehow maintaining credibility among fans and ballplayers alike while appealing to women. The same went for "Major League," which arrived April 7, 1989, and made us laugh, and "Field of Dreams," which bowed two weeks later and made us cry.
The impossibility of it all -- Hollywood can't even shove three vampire movies down audiences' throats within a year -- makes this week all the more sad. "Moneyball" hits theaters Friday. It's the first original, wide-release baseball movie since 2005's "Fever Pitch", which actually was a Nick Hornby book about soccer adapted to baseball for an American audience. It may not have killed the baseball movie for half a decade, but it did spend 103 minutes consummating a Lucifer-approved marriage of Jimmy Fallon and the Boston Red Sox.
"Moneyball" offers no such horrors. It fancies itself a baseball story because however engrossing the book upon which it's based -- author Michael Lewis manages to turn Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane into a hero, makes the game's sabermetric revolution interesting and intertwines them among grander themes (reticence to change, technological fright, the pain of obsolescence, the triumph of sport) -- the subtlety simply cannot translate to film.
"I didn't think it was a movie," says Ron Shelton, the director of "Bull Durham," nor did plenty of others. "Moneyball" bounced around in development for years. Sony poured more than $10 million into it, only to cancel the film days before production in 2009 because director Steven Soderbergh's script, in which he planned on including an animated Bill James popping in as a narrator, was desperately boring. More realistic, yes, but realism must take a backseat when translating a business book to a feature.
Once Soderbergh left, "Moneyball" looked dead. Already it was half a decade after the A's revolution, which had beget as much losing recently as it did winning then. More than that, it was a baseball movie, and it's not the '80s anymore. Not only is football king now, sports movies almost never get made because films cash in on the international market, and pretty much every movie-watching country outside the United States couldn't give a whit about baseball. "Moneyball" needed a savior.
"Two words: Brad Pitt," said Bennett Miller, who took over as director once Pitt committed to the project. "He willed it to happen. He really, really wanted to make this thing. It was his passion project and labor of love. I was oblivious to it for years of development. It was storied by the time I got a phone call asking if I would read everything and be interested in talking to Brad about it. When I sat down with him, we spoke for a few hours. It became clear it was personal and it was going to happen."
The original script went to Aaron Sorkin, writer of "The Social Network." The dialogue in "Moneyball" doesn't dance like in the Facebook movie, nor are the conflicts anywhere near as apparent. Miller admitted Lewis' book "does not lend itself that naturally to a cinematic experience," and that is the inherent flaw of "Moneyball" the movie: the tension and excitement that courses through the book never translates to the film, and we're left with a character study of Billy Beane.
Pitt plays Beane with vigor, maybe a little too much, though that could be the fault of the script. More and more, sports movies that want to be taken seriously demand realism. It's disingenuous to show how cheap the A's were by suggesting players had to pay for soda -- and, even worse, having Beane negotiate a supply of carbonated beverages into a player trade. It's misleading to villainize A's manager Art Howe as an abject insubordinate to make Beane look smarter. It's terribly Hollywood to turn Paul DePodesta -- Beane's assistant GM and a former baseball and football player at Harvard -- into Peter Brand, the fat, socially inept, nerd-foil played by Jonah Hill.
"Certain things," former first baseman Scott Hatteberg says, "got a little hot sauce put on 'em."
All to service a story that needed such embellishment because the focus trained itself so heavily on Beane. Brand, Howe, Hatteberg, David Justice, scouting director Grady Fuson -- each exist in the movie world to make Beane look smart. He grows into this four-dimensional being, a larger-than-life force who can do no wrong even when he does wrong; everyone else languishes in his singular, stilted dimension.
Perhaps this would work if there were something at stake. The central conflict involves Beane fearing he's going to lose his job because he took a risk by bringing in Hatteberg as a first baseman and Chad Bradford as a reliever. The A's had won 102 games the previous season and 91 with an AL West title the year before that. Oakland could've gone 62-100 and Beane wouldn't have been fired.
For a sports movie to succeed, Miller says, "there's always something more to it than the game and the sport. What is compelling is the dynamic of the personal stories involved." The chasm between the real story of Billy Beane and the manufactured one in the "Moneyball" movie keep it from reaching the plateaus of its forbearers, no matter how slick the production, interesting the dialogue or arresting the cinematography.
"Bull Durham" resonates today because, as Hatteberg says, "It was real." Demanding that realism is a difficult proposition. Lewis' last book-to-movie project was "The Blind Side." It was a book about left tackles weaved around the story of Michael Oher, just as "Moneyball" is a business principles-Billy Beane corn dog. The producers turned "The Blind Side" into a Sandra Bullock treatise on the power of motherhood. It flipped the archetypal sports movie on its head. No longer was it about including enough emotion or laughter for the girlfriends and wives to offset the testosterone; it was imperative to have enough football to prevent the boyfriends and husbands from drowning in the tsunami of estrogen.
"Moneyball" could have been a million different things: the film-festival darling Soderbergh envisioned; the faithful adaptation that would've recreated the scenes like in the actual movie when Pitt wheeled and dealt and somehow made talking into the phone interesting; or even a version with female friendliness beyond the sly grin and perfect hair of the star. It never could be great, though, because the material wouldn't allow so with modern filmmaking standards that make "Field of Dreams" and "Major League" and "Bull Durham" so dearly missed.
"We humanized these people," Shelton says. "We saw the world a bit through their eyes. It was nothing like we saw watching on TV. They were more like us. They were frightened and had bigger dreams and were coming to terms with them. I had a wonderful cast, which helped. Nobody paid attention to the minor leagues until that movie, and nobody paid attention to what they were talking about on the mound. So we were able to create this world."
Just as "The Bad News Bears" and "The Natural" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" and "Pride of the Yankees" and "A League of Their Own" and "Eight Men Out" and even "The Sandlot" did. Baseball offered them a canvas, some fictitious, others very real, and they left on us an impression, a feeling, one espoused by Beane in the movie.
"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball," he says, and he's right. "Field of Dreams" made us want to hug our fathers, and "Major League" made us root for the underdog, and "Bull Durham" made us believe in the hanging curveball and long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses simultaneously.
"Moneyball" tries to make us care that Beane's master plan -- the one that in reality started years earlier -- climaxed as the A's won their 20th consecutive game in dramatic fashion. And some might. Movie critics seem to enjoy it. Pitt's presence dominates the screen. It's just not a very good baseball movie.
They don't make those anymore.