Aaron Sorkin wrote the Best Picture of 2011.
Sadly, you'll never see it.
Let me explain.
On rare occasions, I’m lucky enough to get to read an A-list script before seeing its end product. Two wonderful experiences were the Ted Griffin-Steven Soderbergh ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (better than the original, another rare occasion) and the wholly underrated by anyone who hasn’t read or seen it: Joss Whedon’s Pilot for ‘Firefly.’ I loved both those scripts and eagerly looked forward to seeing what Cast & Crew would bring to them. In both instances, Cast & Crew shined.
Flash forward to now (ish) when I get to read the Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book ‘Moneyball.’ (Note there I wrote Zaillian and Sorkin, not Zaillian & Sorkin, and that’s intentional, but more on that in a bit.) The ‘Moneyball’ script is breathtaking; and, no, I’m not using that word lightly. If you don’t believe me, have a little breath taken for yourself right here:
Sure, [Sorkin's script] is moving, funny, uplifting, honest, enlightening, surprising; all the great things we want in a movie. And, sure, people see Sorkin’s name and jump on board (I did) but I’ll go ahead and give Zaillian his due credit right now. If you don’t know his name off-hand, how about these? ‘Schindler’s List,’ ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Gangs Of New York’ and ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.' But then get a rewrite from Aaron Sorkin – and this is what I meant about “and” and “&;” Sorkin did a rewrite, they didn’t write it together – and how could it not be great? Sorkin’s the master of witty pace and dialogue, not to mention he’s living in his wheelhouse: the behind-the-scenes look at something (in this case baseball, but he’s hit it out of the park with a sports show, The White House and late night sketch comedy). Honestly, how could it not be great?
Well, the script is. It’s better than great. But the end product? Um ...
To be fair, a couple of things to level the playing field. First of all, scripts in general aren’t meant to be read by the theatre going public. And I’ll say this very quickly, and certainly don’t mean to insult anyone, but, to be honest, most people don’t know how to read a script (just like most people don’t know how to watch dailies, but I digress). More importantly, movies (and TV shows) are the end product of a hundred – hundreds – of people coming together to make that end product. So the script, like the Director and Grip and Script Supervisor and Sound Designer and Publicity Agent, are all there to serve The Story. It’s a blueprint by which everyone will build their movie. Looooots of chefs in the kitchen (and, to continue being fair, that’s usually a good thing). But reading a Script and then seeing its end product? It’s rare. (But if you get the opportunity, gooooolden.) Add to that this minor inconvenience to all involved with ‘Moneyball,’ I got to read the script and see the movie on the same day. So that’s not easy for any Cast & Crew. After all, I had all these wonderful expectations very fresh in my mind’s eye going into the viewing and …
But first, more play-field leveling.
The only version of the script I've read is Sorkin’s. I’m sure there’s a version of Zaillian’s original out there -- and before Soderbergh made his rewrite when he was Directing -- but I sadly haven’t seen it (and before writing this, I looked). But I read a lot of Sorkin. Let me say that again. I read a lot of Sorkin. I don’t just watch 'A Few Good Men’ and ‘Malice’ and ‘American President’ and ‘Sports Night’ and ‘West Wing’ and ‘Studio 60,’ I really do read as much of his as I can. So I recognize his pace, his verbal hiccups, his style. And they explode in this script. Not just is it stat filled (natch) it’s stat filled in a way that makes someone like me who can at-best spell the word “sports” follow what’s going on. And then, beyond the baseball, it’s that wonderful behind-the-scenes style of his. The failure and triumph. Family. Love and loss. Guys working together, fighting together, and their women looking in on them (and they often much stronger than the working and fighting). It’s great story. Really, Sorkin at the top of his game.
But the movie? I’m sorry, I really am, it's just ...
I promised myself I wouldn’t compare and contrast – after all, spoilers! – so I won’t say, “there’s this great scene in the script where” and then argue why it should have been in the film. What I will say, simply, is that all of the script’s heart doesn’t make it into the film. It tries, and I give Cast & Crew a lot of credit for trying. But all the charm of the script either falls flat or simply isn’t there.
All right, I lied. One (not spoilerish) moment. This is the scene right after Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) doesn’t get his player from The Cleveland Indians and (basically) meets Jonah Hill’s character (Pete in the film, Paul in the script).
Sorry, I’m not sure what to write there except, “?!” I guess I'll try, “How do you write a scene as good as that?!”
I promise I won’t continue pulling direct references. For one reason, it’s simply too depressing that a scene as good as that was cut into the imitation that appears in the film. Because this is a key moment. This is the moment that made us believe in the Pete character and “thinking his way,” believing his crazy idea could work, that everything Billy Beane -- clearly a smart guy, a good General Manager -- has done hasn’t worked so far, and he might try something as crazy as this to help his team win. Not to mention Pete doesn’t totally back down in front of this giant (I love the statistic exchange that ends with, “You don’t have Rincon either.”) This was the scene. But the one in the film? Most of the feeling throughout the film? You’re not sure why Beane would have tried this. In fact, in the movie, you kinda agree with everyone arguing with him. But have this scene? Have an exchange like, “I win at Fantasy Baseball” and have it mean everything? Priceless. And I don’t want to take anything away from Mr. Pitt or Mr. Hill (both, at press, nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively). They’re actually very good in the film, as, honestly, they generally are. And I was excited at the prospect of seeing them rattle off Sorkin dialogue. But, alas, there just isn’t enough Sorkin in this film. Scenes, moments, sure. But the film isn’t given the chance at half as good of material his script. (And not just their characters, but nearly all of them. For instance, I cried when reading the script – read that again if you have to, I cried when simply reading the script – when Scott Hatteberg is brought on the team and his wife overhears the good news from the kitchen. Ready to beat the dead horse? In the script, literally breathtaking. In the movie? No better than “eh.” And that is sad.)
So what happened?
I don’t know; nor am I writing the great ‘Moneyball’ Making Of, so, to be fair, I’m not digging too deep to find out. After all, that isn’t what my writing this is about. I simply couldn’t help but say, “With everyone that seems to love the movie, has anyone read the script?!” ‘Cause that's the movie. And if that movie had been made, it’d not only win Best Picture, but become an instant classic, rivaling that of 'The Babe Ruth Story,' ‘The Natural' and 'Brian's Song.' And ‘Jerry Maguire.’ And ...
Perhaps it’s best summed up in a quote my dear Diana shared with me; this from Clint Eastwood on being a writer’s director: “I’ve learned that when you have a good draft of a script, you just shouldn’t mess with it anymore. When I worked with Don Siegel, he’d get a script he liked and say, ‘Let’s not kill it with improvement.’”
At the very least, we can be proud that Sorkin's draft is, at press, also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. And if The Powers That Be have any sense at all, any legitimate power, they’ll ignore the movie while giving