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Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Ides of March and Moneyball

Just a couple of quick reviews before I get to my overview of the films of 2011. One from this week and one that came out a few weeks ago that I've managed to miss until very recently.

Moneyball isn't just a drama about baseball; it's a drama about the statistics behind baseball. Needless to say, this is not a subject with what anyone would call "universal appeal" but, for the 6.99999 billion of you who have no interest in baseball or statistics, Moneyball still has plenty on offer.

Brad Pitt stars as a former ball player turned manager of a relatively minor baseball team who, after meeting a young Yale economics graduate with a formula that could forever change the way major league baseball is played, is confronted with an opportunity to leave a greater mark on the game than he could ever previously have imagined.

That's right: however much Moneyball may seem to be about baseball on the surface, dig just a little bit deeper and you'll find the story of a man looking for redemption in something that, should it go wrong, will bring a very swift and definite end to his professional life. Forget the numbers and forget even the sport in this sports drama because this is a film about far more universal themes: perseverance, courage, innovation, self-belief and the ability to laugh right back at a world laughing at you.

Throwing the viewer head first into its rather esoteric world - as is actually fairly typical for co-writer Aaron Sorkin - it does take a while to get to grips with Moneyball and it is, to be fair, rather languidly paced but with its sharp script, superb central performances (Pitt, Hill and Hoffman are all in top form) and strong emotional heart, it will undoubtedly have won you over by the time its end credits roll.

Speaking of Aaron Sorkin, The Ides of March is essentially a dark reflection of his rightly acclaimed TV show, The West Wing. As with Moneyball, it also concerns itself with a subject that may be a bit alien to non-Americans but its plot is so simple - as a senator runs for president, one of his most important aids quickly discovers how ugly politics can get - and its concerns so human that it becomes very easy to latch onto.

If you're familiar with the Shakespearean roots of the film's title, you will probably understand exactly where the film's idealistic beginnings lead but, aside for the stellar work done by it all-star cast (do I even need to mention how good the likes of Ryan Gosling, Philip Syemour Hoffman, George Clooney and Evan Rachel Wood always are?), the film's greatest strength is precisely this exploration of political idealism vs political cynicism. It certainly isn't a polemical piece - the characters in question could just as easily be Republicans as they are Democrats - and, admirably, there's nothing simple about its views on politics, as it blends nastiness and hopefulness so completely that it becomes difficult to tell them apart.

For all of that, though, this is certainly not George Clooney's finest work as a director as he does sadly allow the film's clearly well-intentioned political analysis to get in the way of its dramatic thrust. However intellectually stimulating the film is - and, make no mistake, it certainly is that - it's somewhat emotionally cold. It's certainly well worth a watch as a smart, powerfully acted and expertly crafted political drama but, considering just how much time it spends exploring the truly dark side of human nature, its lack of true emotional resonance prevents it from ever living up to the potential of its promise or the sheer talent of its cast and crew.


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