Playing for Passion

By Carl Kozlowski

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Posted September 29, 2011 in Film

All too often the concept of “may the best man win” has come to mean that the side with the most money gets to enjoy a cakewalk to victory. But as the world has devolved a win at all costs philosophy, those victories have often become meaningless. 

The New York Yankees will always throw $100 million at their players and all but demand a World Series ring. And the Justin Biebers of the music world can always pay the best producers and promoters to buy their way to the top of the charts.

Two new movies, both based on true stories, offer a refreshing look at how some people can still buck the system and emerge victorious simply by working hard and performing with passion. Moneyball tells the tale of how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, built an amazing team out of overlooked players when he was forced to operate with a salary cap that was one-third the level of the Yankees.

And Pearl Jam Twenty, a wildly entertaining documentary by rock journalist-turned-director Cameron Crowe, shows how the rock band Pearl Jam has managed to thrive for two decades despite battling Ticketmaster and choosing to largely stay out of the publicity limelight. While baseball and rock music are entirely different arenas, comparisons of Beane with the boys in the band are easy to draw.

Based on a 2003 nonfiction book by Michael Woolf, Moneyball stars Brad Pitt as Beane, who was an unusually talented baseball prospect in 1979 when he was signed in the first draft by the New York Mets. Beane could do it all: defense, offense and hit for power. He chose the Mets right after high school while turning down a full-ride scholarship to Stanford University. But things didn’t turn out well for Beane in the majors, as screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and director Bennett Miller (Capote) masterfully show in a sporadic series of sad flashbacks that show Beane unable to forgive himself for failure and wondering if he’ll ever manage to succeed as a general manager.

Beane can’t possibly manage to pay top stars on his relatively miniscule budget, but when he attempts to haggle with Cleveland Indians management for some B-level players, he notices Peter Brant, a heavyset and insecure young man in his 20s whom the Indians seem to give the power to approve or dis-approve of their trades.

Fascinated by the “kid” and his power, Beane learns that Brant has developed an entirely new way of building teams: Rather than throwing money at top veterans, Brant statistically analyzes every player in the majors to figure out who has the best ability to get on base, even if they do so by walks.

The idea is that if you can get players on base, you’re guaranteed to score runs. And by giving nearly washed-up players a chance, Brant believes that their restored pride and revived passion will make the indefinable difference that can lift a team to greatness.

Against all odds and the salty complaints of the A’s veteran scouts and manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beane and Brant apply those principles, setting off a rousing tale that had the audience cheering without relying on heavy-handed cliche “moments.”

Add in Beane’s parallel struggle to decide whether to follow big-money offers to manage other teams or stay close to his preteen daughter even if it costs him a big payday, and Moneyball accomplishes the unlikely feat of making statistical analysis a moving and vibrantly enjoyable experience.

While Moneyball mesmerizes viewers with a deceptively slow build-up, Pearl Jam Twenty explodes off the screen from start to finish with a mix of the band’s powerful music and the potent mix of emotions that drove its creation. Following the band from its earliest incarnation as Mother Love Bone, it shows how an unknown singer with an epic voice and charismatic good looks named Eddie Vedder not only saved the band after MLB singer Andrew Wood died of a drug over-dose, but also transcended the Seattle grunge scene to become a lasting force on the global music scene.

The movie has plenty of rocking footage, including an incredible montage of Vedder’s daredevil escapades of hanging from the rafters of concert halls worldwide. But Crowe’s longtime relationship with the band also reveals that they have always attempted to keep their humanity more sacred than the quest for publicity and riches, and offering a shining example of staying true to your dreams no matter what field you’re in.

Moneyball is out in theaters nationwide and Pearl Jam Twenty will air on national television Oct. 21 on PBS’ American Masters series.


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