MoneyBalls (Angelina's nickname for the Pittster): Aaron Sorkin's trilogy

4 October, 2011

P Diddy's basketball
With Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin has completed a trilogy of character films that also included Charlie Wilson's War and The Social Network. All three films have a lot in common: they're about public/powerful/real men and each man can be defined by irony. These films also share a lot of similar storytelling devices.

Charlie Wilson is a forgettable congressman, mired in coke and whore scandals, and yet he manages to create the Soviet-Afghan war behind closed doors through unlikely deals. Not the president, just a low-rank congressman.

The Social Network is about the Zuck and how he created/stole Facebook and alienated or took advantage of everyone close to him. The creator of the most used social network in the world actually says out loud in the film "I don't want friends."

Billy Beane was a highly-touted prospect, a pretty face that could do it all and was drafted in the first round. He fails hard and ends up working as a scout and works his way up to the job of GM where he totally changes the way GMs evaluate talent, turning away from the pretty-boy 5-tool players and instead looking for the "island of misfit toys."

Let's put this guy in a movie
about baseball statistics.
So you can see, at the heart of each film is a simple conceit: the main character is living irony. This is important when writing a film. Even if you're making a simple bio-pic, you need a conceit or a "guiding principle" as Truby would call it. Once you know this conceit, or the irony of the character in Sorkin's case, then you can see the plot unfold much more clearly.

The second story-telling device that dominates these films is the dichotomy of the main character's goal and dream. The goal is what the character is actively after, an immediate and tangible action/event/result. The dream is more elusive, bigger-picture. It's the difference between trying to get into a good college and wanting to have a successful career. The difference between the dream and the goal is where you'll find the endings to Sorkin's films.

In so many scripts and movies, you'll find characters with no dreams, only goals. It can still work, but usually it makes for a lousy ending. Endings often come down to simply, "did they accomplish their goal or not?" Did he get the girl or not? Did he save his wife or not? Did they win the championship or not? Good endings are much less about winning the game, and more about whether or not they achieved the dream. In The Matrix, Neo's goal is to save Morpheus, but he accomplishes his dream of becoming The One.  Tell me what's his dream in the 2nd film...

Charlie Wilson's goals are all about getting money from congress to fund the Afghan resistance, buying weapons with that money, and getting the weapons in their hands. The larger goal is to fight off the Soviets. Charlie's dream however is to turn Afghanistan around, turn it into a decent country that will succeed rather than one that scumbags and terrorists will recruit from and take advantage of. Charlie accomplishes his goals, but at the end of the film, with the Soviets defeated, can get absolutely no support to rebuild the infrastructure of Afghanistan, leaving the freedom fighters he helped train to wait around a few years before they cause 9/11. It's a bittersweet ending that causes us to reexamine our priorities and look at how the US continues to act.

What about 257 friends?
Zuckerberg's goals are all related to making Facebook, making it more successful, and so on. His dream however, is to get that girl back that he had at the beginning of the film, and more broadly speaking, to connect with people as true friends/lovers. But the harder he tries to accomplish his goals, the farther away he gets from his dream. Power has its price.

Billy Beane's goal is to make the Oakland A's into a winning team, win a world series. He is constantly reminded that his team has no budget and is doing well for itself just to even make the playoffs. It's a bit like Rocky, where the goalposts are moved, rather than trying to win the fight, Rocky and the A's are just trying to prove that they belong in the ring.

Most of the way through the film, I thought Billy's goal was to make a winning team, prove they belong, and his dream was to win a world series (something I already know he's not yet to accomplish). However, as the film is beginning to wrap up, there's an odd moment where Jonah Hill, wrapped up in a big winning streak is dumbfounded by Billy's lack of enthusiasm for their success. Billy then clearly changes his goal/dream. He tells Jonah that his dream isn't to win a ring, it's to change baseball. Meaning he wants to make it so small market teams like his can compete because of his way of evaluating players.

Lazy Writer: "Then there's a smoke monster. And
everyone's all like, What!?!"
The ending of the film is based around the Red Sox offering Billy the job of GM along with a huge salary. He has a daughter that lives with his ex-wife, meaning that moving to Boston means he'll be leaving his daughter. Rather than letting his daughter be the only factor in his decision as many films would have done, Billy instead makes the decision because of his dream, to change baseball, something he couldn't do if he went to Boston where he would have had a huge payroll to work with.

If you've read my posts from last week about male and female character's, you'll already know where I'm going with this: Letting family concerns dictate character's actions is sloppy and lazy writing. A lazy writer would have had Billy stay in Oakland to be with his daughter. Aww, what a nice guy. Sorkin has him do it to accomplish his dream. How many films have you seen where the climax is all about the kids or the girl? They're almost all about that. Give your characters goals and dreams that go beyond the family and you'll hit a home run. Metaphorically speaking. It'd be weird if you literally hit a home run. Just like if the A's won a World Series.

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