Monday, November 2, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Pt 2

There is a lot of entertainment value in the story. You have a baseball team losing its best players. The A’s do not have enough money to buy solid replacements. You have a protagonist with a clear goal of getting this team out of the cellar and engineering a winning season, and interesting enough, he does so with “bad” players. You have a strong masculine physical lead role. You have fast scenes with fast, smart, snappy dialogue, which I’m sure Pitt couldn’t wait to rattle off in front of cameras.

Those factors alone make the script passable, but the story as a whole gives me pause. Not only that, the idea of adapting this book, which was essentially about statistics and how scouts changed the way they viewed the statistical value of players, also gives me pause.

Why? There’s no theme or strong emotional hook to this concept. There’s too much emphasis on statistics and not enough on characters. After its all over, when you think, “so what was that all about?” you realize that this story essentially amounts to the audience saying, “oh, isn’t it interesting how the Oakland A’s re-thought the statistical game and came up with a winning team with undervalued players on a tight budget.” That’s not a movie. That’s an article for Sports Illustrated. That’s a made-for-TV-event targeted to the most hardcore-statistics-lovin’- baseball-fanatics. For a movie that’ll get distributed around the world, this kind of anecdote about a change in the way we view statistics is at best a side note for what should be a bigger story, for what should be a gripping theme and emotional hook, which should be centered on the character’s journey. We don’t have that here.

What do we have? We have 128 pages of Billy Beane playing hardball with his scouts, with the owner, with the coach, with Paul the economist, and he’s doing what he can to change the way people think about statistics to create a winning team. We have flashbacks to Billy’s past that only serve to show how the emphasis on Billy’s personal statistics during his brief attempt at playing baseball shaped his thinking as an executive and helped bring about change to how the scouts view statistics. Okay, so what? That’s just exposition. Billy goes through women as often as he goes through baseball players, which never changes, and from what I’ve read isn’t historically accurate either. So I have to ask, “How does that serve the story?” We’re occasionally shown Billy hanging out with his daughter, which likewise does nothing to advance the story but only serves to show a different side of Billy. Of course, I’m all for character depth and I do not believe it essential that every character arcs.

But in the end, you walk away feeling not as exhilarated as you had hoped because there’s an emphasis on the intellect over the emotion. That’s really evident toward the end when the story loses steam and fails to deliver the emotional goods as it should. The fact that there’s Bill James occasionally popping up to explain statistics to us only illustrates my point that there’s too much emphasis on things other than the character’s journey. James reminded me of the motivational coach in Jerry Maguire whose words had so much more heart and who existed solely to support the character’s journey.

Consider the greatest baseball films ever made. Pride of the Yankees, a favorite of mine about Lou Gehrig -- that’s a character’s journey. The Natural -- character’s journey. Field of Dreams -- character’s journey. Major League, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own -- all about the character’s journey.

What’s my mantra? Characters come first.

It’s so strange that throughout this script, various characters repeatedly talk about and watch The Natural, which only made me prefer that story over this one and which also reminded me that the best stories stay focused on the character’s journey. We know the theme in The Natural -- dreams deferred. Would you still pursue your dreams when the world thinks you’re past your prime? Great! I’m there rooting for Roy Hobbs like the rest of the world. But what’s the theme of Moneyball? I’m not sure, but I can tell you that statistics is not a theme. That’s a intellectual argument. If it was up to me, I’d de-emphasize statistics and emphasize something entirely different that gives us a strong theme and an emotional hook. Say, a theme about failure. How often and how long can you endure failure before you give up your dreams? Thus, we’d be rooting for Billy to “never give up your dreams.”

When you cannot easily articulate your theme, when the emphasis on a script is on something factual or on anything other than the character’s journey, it is an inevitability as sure as death and taxes that despite great scenes and snappy dialogue, the story will fall flat in the end.

Tomorrow: Soderbergh's Moneyball script

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

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