Two films today that should garner some awards buzz, though if the other major pictures are as strong as I suspect they are going to be, one of them might fade from view. The other, however, is one of the most astounding documentaries I have ever encountered in my twenty-five year career as a critic.
I had the pleasure of discussing Moneyball (***) at length with Steven Soderbergh three years ago when he was originally slated to direct. For a variety of reasons he fell away from the project, leaving Bennett Miller to step in and deliver a strong picture that gives insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of professional baseball.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was a former pro ball player who worked his way up from scout to General Manager of the Oakland A’s. After learning his budget has been drastically cut, he decides to try a different approach to create his team. Hiring Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major and statistics nut to help him create a team by “buying runs,” they are looked at as madmen by the A’s executives.
Their attitude is not to bring in top notch players but to hire men who can hit, get on base, and score. When they lose three superstars to other, wealthier teams, they go on a mission to sign players who can play the game without a lot of flash, but are able to score more runs.
Pitt brings a real sense of integrity to his role, as a man who wants to win, who is willing to break from the norm to do so, and though he is going to take heat from A’s brass and the press, he takes his licks and sticks with his plan. It’s one of Pitt’s best performances.
Jonah Hill is a revelation is the supporting role as Brand, a numbers man who knows little about baseball, but at least watches the game, whereas Beane does not. It’s a strong and surprising performance from a young man best known for his comedic talents.
Where the film is strongest is in its depiction of how ball players live and go about their daily business, something we never really see. The realism is uncanny, and the characters are played with honesty and clarity. Of course it’s a movie, but it’s a movie about an unconventional kind of underdog, and everyone loves an underdog.
Into the Abyss (****) is Werner Herzog’s startling documentary about capital punishment focusing on a triple murder in Texas. The director makes clear from the beginning of the film he does not feel that a life should be taken, but he brings an even-handed argument to the film, never allowing his own beliefs to get in the way of the bigger picture the same way he approached Grizzly Man (2005). At one point in the film he bluntly tells the young killer eight days away from death that “When I talk to you it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but I think human beings should not be executed, as simple as that.”
He then proceeds to make the best documentary of his career, going back to the time of the murders and speaking with the people directly connected to the family. These moments are brutally honest, heartbreaking in their raw emotion. Even though so much time has passed, the feelings are still like fresh nerves being struck.
Where the film was stronger I felt was in the moments when they spoke with the killer, who is a fresh-faced, wide eyed, (seemingly) innocent person who committed a terrible act. Looking at him one wonders how he could have done such terrible things, yet we know he did because we see the havoc that was caused by him.
In one startling scene, we see the spot where a body was discovered, now a driveway, concrete masking where it was once found. A profound reminder that time marches relentlessly on with or without us. Herzog has always been a penetrating director, never been afraid to go where darkness lies.
Here, he stares into the face of evil and makes him seem almost…human.