Students of the Game

‘THE IDES OF MARCH’ & ‘MONEYBALL’

Even critics who admired The Ides of March for its fast moving melodramatics and juicy acting complained about a denouement awash in cynicism. But a bleak view of politics is not the same thing as a cynical wallow, not if the view is sufficiently grounded in a believable and gripping dramatic action. Though its plot contains a few loose ends, The Ides of March drives home a solid point, and it’s not the usual nihilistic one (à la The Best Man and Bob Roberts) about campaigning being a game at which only the corrupt can win. The point here is more complex and, perhaps, more disturbing: when politics becomes a job instead of a calling, a vocation, we all lose.

The Ides of March is an adaptation of a play by Beau Willimon, Farragut North (the name of a D.C. subway stop that leads to K Street, the dwelling place of evil lobbyists). The movie focuses not on the presidential candidate Governor Mike Morris, played to sleek perfection by George Clooney (who was also director and coauthor of the screenplay), but on his press spokesman, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling, whose hooded, pretty-boy charm is better employed here than in Drive, where he plays a macho superman). Myers comes on at first as the ideal liberal henchman for an ideal liberal Democrat espousing all the correct lefty positions on abortion, the environment, gay marriage, etc. In fact, the spokesman apparently would like his candidate to move even further left by promoting a domestic Peace Corps that would draft all eighteen-year-olds, who would be be rewarded with free college educations. (The governor balks at this, of course.) Thus we are cleverly set up for a surprise: since we must now believe that Myers is utterly in sync with, or even exceeds, his boss’s idealism, we must also believe he will support the candidate no matter what happens, even if loyalty entails self-sacrifice. Right?

Wrong. Because, after a series of set-backs involving an untoward meeting with the campaign manager of a rival candidate, the longed-for endorsement of a king-making senator, the governor’s one-night stand with an intern, an abortion, and a suicide, Myers finds that self-sacrifice is indeed expected of him, that he must gracefully resign. But he refuses to decamp. It’s not, finally, his candidate’s idealism that he loves but campaigning itself, not the good that politics might bring about or even its perks but the sheer buzz of the hustings and the satisfaction of exercising one’s skills. Myers is in love with process, not outcome. And to stay in that process he’s willing to sink to blackmail. He’s a professional in the worst sense of the word.

Though the dialogue is full of clichés—or maybe current political discourse is full of them—Clooney keeps the action brisk and well knit (though a scene between the governor and his wife seems included only to pad Clooney’s role). Helping to set the pace are the noir atmospherics of Phedon Papamichael’s camerawork and performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as rival campaign managers, two potbellied warriors so coolly savvy that they almost give political hackery a good name.

In fact, these two are so engaging that they point to a limitation of this movie. Shouldn’t The Ides of March have more of the rambunctiousness, the messiness, the dirty fun of a campaign on the road? One must applaud director Clooney for not allowing Giamatti and Hoffman to upstage Gosling, yet the film needs a bit more of those two and the hungers they embody. After all, since Myers stoops to immorality precisely because his work has become his life, shouldn’t we see more of what attracted him to that work? Another doubt arises: Myers crosses the line from idealist to blackmailer so swiftly and so completely that we begin to suspect he was never an idealist in the first place. A hero turning into a villain is a dramatic figure; a covert villain suddenly revealed has a harder time engaging our sympathy. Then again, The Ides of March never bothers to solicit sympathy. This movie is so tightly bound to its conspiratorial tone, to its cold, coiled anger and knowingness, that it never takes a breath.

If The Ides of March offers a look at the machinations that take place before the public can vote, then Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction bestseller, shows how baseball teams get assembled prior to, and sometimes during, the playing season. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland A’s, defied the custom of hiring as many flashy home-run hitters as possible and instead collected players who could simply get on base and exercise just enough fielding talent to keep the opposing side from scoring. This was not only a hopeful innovation but an economic necessity because the mere $38 million in Oakland’s coffers couldn’t compete with the $100 million-plus that the Yankees and the Red Sox were flaunting. Bean called this strategy “hiring in the aggregate.” He also hired a young MBA, in the film called Peter Brant, played by Jonah Hill, to marshal player statistics on his computer. If this seems like the triumph of technology over “going with your gut,” it should be kept in mind that Beane was trying to break with the economic determinism of big bucks.

In any case, few recent films feel warmer, looser, more spontaneous, or more sheerly human than Moneyball. Instead of aiming for a great sports-action movie, director Bennett Miller (Capote) and scriptwriters Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) severely concentrate on Beane’s psychology. He is so nervous about his gamble (and perhaps melancholy about his long-ago failure as a player for the Mets) that he can’t bear to watch his team play, so we don’t get to watch them either. Instead, we move behind the scenes with Billy as he colludes and collides with his bosses and underlings, pleads and berates, jives and cogitates, jokes and vents, hires and fires. There is something sad yet quirkily funny about this introverted man with an athlete’s physicality whose temperament has locked him forever into psychological solitary confinement, and whose strategy makes him the object of bewilderment and scorn for sportswriters, businessmen, and players.

Despite spending so little time on baseball action, Moneyball, unlike The Ides of March, captures the feel of its milieu, in part thanks to the pungent dialog. (When the irate field manager—Philip Seymour Hoffman, even better here than in Ides—tells Beane  “you are outside your mind!” the simple substitution of outside for out of redeems the cliché without getting showy about it.) And director Miller uses space and sound adroitly to convey tension. When Billy slams furniture around to quiet a locker room before chewing out the team for its slackness, the ensuing shamed silence is thickened rather than dispersed by the sound of a bat rolling around the floor. Yet, so tightly focused is this movie on its protagonist that the writing and staging would come to nothing without a great performance in the lead.

And who, just a year ago, would have thought Brad Pitt capable of a great performance? Well, I should have because I was one of the reviewers who hailed his first prominent appearance in Thelma and Louise. But after that Pitt seemed resigned to being a clotheshorse (despite capable work in Kalifornia and Seven). I gave up on him. Then Tree of Life happened and now Moneyball.

The pretty-boy face has acquired a few furrows, but even when it was unlined, Pitt’s countenance suggested that wheels were spinning and plans were being hatched. (This was what made his young con man in Thelma and Louise so effective.) Tree of Life required Pitt to register middle-aged resentment and disappointment for the first time; in Moneyball the same feelings are at play and feed into Billy’s reasons for adopting a new hiring practice. Forced in his adolescence to choose between a full scholarship to Stanford and a contract with the Mets, he took the latter when agents assured him that his many skills made him “the complete package.” Now, as general manager, his hiring of partial packages seems like revenge on the dealmaking that once set him up for a fall. We see this hunt for payback in Pitt’s eyes, but his body language leavens the intensity with playfulness. There is still an athlete in the executive’s body yearning to vault the deskwork, and Pitt conveys this with an assortment of moves and gestures—fist-pumpings, handclapping, table banging—that make it clear Billy still inhabits a baseball diamond of the mind. And Pitt and Jonah Hill (as the smart but diffident and hopelessly sedentary MBA) make a wonderful comedy team: the Demon of Perpetual Motion and his sidekick, the Number Crunching Gnome.

Moneyball will delight sports fans, but it’s really aimed at students of the human comedy.

Published in the 2011-11-18 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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