Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Moneyball, The Ides of March
Greetings from Toronto. Normally I kick off my film festival posts with a rundown of the titles I'm most eager to see, and also offer some comment on the few films I've seen in advance. But this year, I'm working with my most ambitious schedule since I've started attending in 2005: If all goes to plan, I will have seen 51 films by the time I fly home, which leaves precious little time for dealing with arcana. (With the exception of films that premiered at other festivals—like Sean Durkin's startling Martha Marcy May Marlene, opening in October—the movies I was able to preview weren't particularly good.)
So let's cut right to it, shall we? Adapted from Michael Lewis's 2003 best-seller, Moneyball was initially supposed to be filmed by Steven Soderbergh when Sony pulled the plug, supposedly because Soderbergh's version was aggressively anti-commercial. As a result of this—fairly or not—I spent a decent portion of the movie thinking about the film that Soderbergh might have made. (This was made easier by the release of this week's Contagion, which views the spread of a virus with the kind of clinical detachment that might have served this story well.) Soderbergh is probably the only filmmaker who matches Lewis's signature mix of the cheeky and the wonkish, and so the failure to get his version made has to qualify as a missed opportunity.
Still, the man who inherited the project (Capote's Bennett Miller) is no slouch, and he—along with screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian—handles it with much less sentimentality than might have been expected. It's subversive to see a baseball movie in which a Big Win isn't the dramatic climax, although the film does include one crowd-pleasing home run for good measure. Still, it doesn't rethink the baseball movie the way Oakland A's manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) rethought baseball: Strapped with the lowest cash flow of any team in the Major Leagues, Beane assembled a roster of undervalued players using statistical analysis. His calculation was that aggregate runs mattered more than individual players. Pitt gives the project the charisma it needs, and Jonah Hill—as the Yale econ major who brings Beane the idea—is convincing if slightly flustered in a dramatic role.
Another major release I saw yesterday was The Ides of March, George Clooney's adaptation of Beau Williamson's 2008 stage play Farragut North. The play was purportedly inspired by the campaign of Howard Dean, although the drama's central candidate (whom Clooney plays himself) also incorporates aspects of John Edwards. The story concerns a high-level campaign staffer (Ryan Gosling) who by his own admission has "drank the Kool-Aid"—and then comes to find that said beverage is laced with arsenic.
As you might expect given the play's origins, the material seems dated—as commentators have noted, the Obama presidency exists in a post-factual era in which it's not even necessary to substantiate lies about political rivals. Dramatically, the movie is also a bit pat, although Clooney (who directed 2005's stirring Good Night, and Good Luck) imbues it with the agreeably grim feel of a '70s paranoid thriller. The cast also gives it some juice: No movie that features a smackdown between Philip Seymour Hoffman (as an experienced political operative) and Gosling (walking away with yet another movie as his protégé) could ever be less than watchable.