(Why Were These Movies Chosen? Part Two)
Wrestling with life
The Artist was not alone among this year’s Oscar selections in wrestling with life’s fast-changing and unpredictable circumstance. Moneyball, with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, is a fictional adaptation of the true story of Billy Beane who realized that with a fraction of the money of rich baseball franchises like the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, his Oakland “A’s” had no chance of winning if they simply mapped out their strategy the same way as others who had more resources. Instead, if the A’s were to be successful in building a championship team, a new business paradigm (a new way to look at “life”) was needed.
Beane therefore decided to “rethink baseball: how it was managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why,” said Michael Lewis whose nonfiction, bestseller was the basis for the film. If one could not think and act outside the box, then any hoped-for future would prove simply an illusion. So despite objections from those who liked the old way the game was projected, Beane took the risk of reinventing how to shape a championship team. Seen from this perspective, though The Artist is ostensibly about silent movies and Moneyball is about the game of baseball as it is played some seventy-five years later, the movies are remarkably similar. They share the same theme. Choosing to bank his team’s chances on the advice of a young, pudgy, geek who recently had graduated from Yale in economics, Beane’s “A’s” reinvent themselves and surprisingly win the championship.
Elements of success
To be sure, one cannot underestimate the importance of Moneyball’s smart script, talented actors, and accomplished director in helping it become an Oscar nominee. Bennett Miller, whose Capote was earlier nominated for an Oscar, took over a troubled production and directed the story with a sure hand. And though they lost the Oscar to Alexander Payne who wrote The Descendants, Steven Ziallian who had previously written Schindler’s List and Aaron Sorkin, whose The Social Network was an equally brilliant adaptation of a nonfiction book, wrote a superb screenplay, replete with a compelling storyline and clever dialogue.
Moreover, both Brad Pitt who played Beane, and Jonah Hill, as the Yale graduate, though they lost out on their nominations for best actor and best supporting actor, had great chemistry between them. As the audience, we rooted for them, even given their abrasiveness and self-doubt. Somehow, they seemed like us, even if their courageous confidence and brilliant alternate plans were probably beyond most of our reach.
But equally important to the film’s success was the movie’s underlying theme. The subtitle of the 2003 bestseller on which the movie was based was, “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” When the book was first published, it immediately became the talk among Hollywood studio executives. They also were trying to win at an increasingly unfair game. Fast forward a decade, and here is something most of us also feel the need to learn. Today, life’s game for most of us is too often also capricious and unfair — whether we are a seminary professor, a graphic designer, or a car salesman, we know that. Most of us sense with Billy Beane that we must “adapt or die.” Moneyball gives viewers a glimpse of how that might be possible — again, it offers to its viewers hope, however unlikely.
Like The Artist and Moneyball, The Descendants provides still a third, strong Oscar-nominated depiction of someone needing to reinvent himself given life’s vagaries and surprises. But this time, it is not the workplace that proves capricious, but our personal lives. As the movie opens, we hear George Clooney’s Matt King tell us in a voiceover that life in Hawaii has always been a contradiction:
“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation — we’re all just out drinking mai-tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they nuts? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancers less fatal, our grief less devastating? ***, I haven’t been on a surfboard in fifteen years.”
What follows over the next two hours is an extended illustration of that truth. Though he might live in paradise, a.k.a., Hawaii, Matt must learn to be the parent of two unruly daughters after his vivacious and athletic wife Elizabeth is injured and lies comatose from a boating accident. To make matters worse, Matt discovers from his angry teenage daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) that his wife was having an affair under his nose. And perhaps making the perfect trifecta, George, as the sole trustee of his family’s inheritance — thousands of acres of pristine beachfront in Kauai, finds himself pressured by his cousins to cash in on their legacy by selling it for millions and millions of dollars to a developer for condominiums, hotels and a mall. They can all be rich, if he will but sell their legacy.
But in a way analogous to George Valentin and Billy Beane, though trauma might seem to undermine our ability to enjoy life, and materialism might prove alluring, whatever the cost, the reverse also proves true for Matt King. As the story unfolds, Matt comes to embrace his present responsibilities both as a father and as trustee of the family’s beachfront acreage. Though life’s contradictions remain, and though Matt confesses that he and his girls were formerly like “parts of an archipelago,” connected while remaining “separate and alone,” the family crisis brings the two girls and their dad together. Their journey in the movie begins with sorrow, anger, and guilt. But it eventuates in acceptance, self-discovery, love and forgiveness. Though life sometimes has other plans, Matt turns life’s happenstance into the occasion for discovering life’s possibility — hope proves possible.
Indecisive as he is at one moment, and yet impulsive the next, resentful given circumstance, but also filled with regret for past failures, Matt is everyman/woman. As Matt learns to be more than a “back-up parent,” something he has labeled himself, we as viewers quietly cheer. For we also find hope that one day the sorrow, guilt and anger we experience, emotion related to circumstances in our own lives and families, might similarly be transformed. Stuff happens; but it need not undercut our recognition of life’s wonder, nor our commitment to the work we are given to do and the family we love. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observes, “When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work — this is a gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19)
Invite some friends over to watch one of the two movies reviewed here, using Robert’s ideas to guide your viewing and conversation. Can you see how film, as a form of art, gives us insight to the issues and ideas of the day, even as it strives to entertain us?
You should read Robert’s book, Reel Spirituality. Order your copy today from our online store. And read the article, “Watching Movies to the Glory of God,” by Adam Parker.