Moneyball & On Higher Ground

September 23, 2011
By Marc Glassman

Bennett Miller, director
Aaron Sorkin & Steven Zaillian, script based on the book by Michael Lewis
Starring: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand, based on Paul DePodesta), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Kathryn Morris (Tara Beane)

On Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga, director and actor
Carolyn S. Briggs & Tim Metcalfe, script based on Ms. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World
Starring: Vera Farmiga (Corinne Walker), Norbert Leo Butz (Pastor Bill), Dagmara Dominczyk (Annika), John Hawkes (C W Walker), Joshua Leonard (Ethan Miller), Donna Murphy (Kathleen Walker), Taissa Farmiga (Teenage Corinne), Boyd Holbrook (Teenage Ethan), Nina Ardina (Wendy Walker), McKenzie Turner (Young Corinne)


The best sports movies aren’t about baseball or boxing or soccer or marathon running. They’re first and foremost about the emotional lives of people and secondarily about their existences–financial and often metaphysical—which are, naturally, based on a sport.

The canniest film producers understand that an audience shouldn’t be expected to care about the minutia of soccer in Bend it Like Beckham or boxing in Raging Bull or baseball in Bull Durham. Our concern will always be with the characters—Parminder Nagra’s footie Sikh rebel in “Beckham,” Robert de Niro’s Jake LaMotta in “Bull” and Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis in “Durham”–not the sport itself.

The makers of Moneyball–director Bennett Miller, scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin and a host of producers—realized that their film wouldn’t work if the audience had to understand a lot about arcane statistics and how number crunching could help a baseball team. Michael Lewis’ best selling non-fiction book–the basis of the film—wouldn’t have been a hit if he’d lacked a character that could turn stats into drama.

Luckily, that man was ready for the spotlight. His name is Billy Beane and he could have walked out of Central Casting and, well, been played by Brad Pitt.

Beane is a former first round draft choice for the New York Mets, who was a colossal flop as a baseball player. Sparing himself and lots of supporters the agony of a long drawn-out mediocre playing career, Beane quit while in his twenties to become a baseball scout. Before he was 40, he’d become a young and very bright general manager for the Oakland A’s.

The A’s had a problem, one that could be dramatized in a book and on screen. They were–and continue to be—one of the most impoverished teams in major league baseball, located in a small and very poor marketplace. And yet, for many years, they were a successful team through (in part) great drafting of young players.

In 2001, Beane lost three of his best players through free agency; quite simply, he couldn’t offer them as much money to stay in Oakland as could teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox.

How could he replace them at virtually no cost and still get back into the playoffs? This is where the movie–and the book–really take off. Brad Pitt, playing Mr. Beane as an affable, confident charmer whose demeanour may be masking pain and doubt, has to think outside the box. You can’t replace superstars without money.

Beane has his “ah-ha” moment when he sees Peter Brand, an overweight nerd, influence a potential baseball trade between Oakland and the Cleveland Indians. Brand is into statistics, something baseball has abhorred. Luring Brand to Oakland, Beane practically adopts him as a son, deciding that “sabermetrics,” the fancy stats promulgated by Brand can get him to find undervalued players who don’t look like stars but, in fact, have stellar abilities.

Moneyball concentrates on the 2002 season when Brand’s theories, backed by Beane, worked beyond expectations. The A’s made the playoffs and won a record 20 games in a row. But it isn’t the factual success that makes this film worthwhile. It’s the marvelous interplay between Pitt and Jonah Hill, who is terrific as Brand, the only fictional character in the film (an amalgam of several statistically minded baseball nerds including Paul DePodesta and Bill James.)

The sophisticated and attractive Pitt makes a wonderful comic mentor to Jonah Hill’s young, very naïve and not-so-good-looking surrogate son. The two give the film humour while Kathryn Morris gives it heart as Tara Beane, Billy’s young daughter, who has forged a profound relationship with her divorced dad.

Moneyball is a sure-fire hit. Watch for Brad Pitt’s name when Oscar nomination season comes around. And Aaron Sorkin’s, too, for a script worthy of the writer of West Wing and The Social Network.

On Higher Ground

It’s rare nowadays to see a film treat religion seriously. Vera Farmiga deserves a lot of credit for setting her directorial debut On Higher Ground in a reborn Christian congregation. Based on a memoir by Carolyn Briggs, who co-wrote the script, the film dramatizes the life of a young woman, “Corinne Walker,” who slowly grows apart from the fundamentalist Protestant religion in which she was raised.

Corinne’s story isn’t a simple one of rebelling against hypocrisy. Farmiga is very careful to portray Corinne’s husband Ethan and pastor Bill as genuinely good people. So are the members of their congregation.

It’s just that Corinne doesn’t fit–though she tries for a long, long time, until her oldest children are already teenagers. She can’t help questioning her life and finds that her intellectual curiosity overwhelms her devotion to the safe life she’s helped to create.

On Higher Ground benefits greatly from Vera Farmiga’s skillful and moving performance as Corinne. Casting herself as the lead may be Farmiga’s directorial coup since you have to believe in Corinne as a caring individual, who eventually has no choice except to move away from the Church.

In a film filled with fine character actors, Farmiga’s second coup was finding Dagmara Dominczyk, who is sensational as Corinne’s best friend, Annika. A Polish immigrant married to another member of the congregation, Annika is bright and earthy and funny and sensual. She gives Corinne some warmth in her life until tragedy hits.

On Higher Ground isn’t an epic, nor does it play for big emotions. Taken on its own terms, it’s a mature, thoughtful work, which neither condemns nor endorses reborn Christianity. It is, befitting its own humility and sincerity, a worthy and worthwhile film that deserves an audience’s respect–if not love.

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