Sport is blessed with narrative. In no sport is this more apparent than in baseball. Through an affection for and addiction to statistics, one can draw lines between a century of stories. The game, unlike most others, has barely changed since Abner Doubleday claimed to have invented it. There’s wooden bats, leather gloves, nine innings, and at any point, anything can happen. Its exposition is what writers dream of having the talent to divine. Which makes Hollywood’s penchant for altering its history so confounding, as displayed once again in Disney’s Million Dollar Arm. In altering the truth the film unnecessarily takes a compelling story and makes it a contrived and derivative Hollywood tale of the American Dream.
Million Dollar Arm is based on a true story born for the silver screen, the tale of two poor Indians who through luck, happenstance, and determined will found themselves pitching for a chance at major league contracts. It was quite literally a rags to riches story. Unfortunately, the film has Disney-fied the story, corrupting its narrative, and producing a feature that is a victim of its own attempts to be successful. Cursory investigation of the real story behind Million Dollar Arm suggests the filmmakers left a better movie somewhere in the ether of truth.
This has been done before with baseball films. Recently, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, the story of baseball’s statistical analysis revolution, altered timelines in order to suit Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s script’s desires. Oakland A’s first baseman Carlos Peña is a star on the rise in the film, which was not the case in reality. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliant portrayal of A’s manager Art Howe is an interpretation of the real man, and not at all what Howe or other A’s of that era claim him to be. And Jeremy Giambi is presented as a player added to the Oakland A’s roster before the season upon which the film is based, when in fact he was on the team the year before, and was involved in one of baseball’s most notorious plays, New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter’s "flip play" in the 2001 American League Division Series. The changes were not major, leaving one to wonder: Why make the changes at all?
In a sport whose fans are manic and devout in their faith in statistics and lore, why rewrite an already compelling story? Million Dollar Arm falls victim to the Hollywood treatment in its attempt to make the story a contrived fantasy about the American Dream. Sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his partner Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi) are struggling to make their agency thrive in an era of greed and opulence. Times may be hard indeed: how else might Bernstein be about to lose his Porsche and palatial L.A. home? In the film, Bernstein comes up with the idea (while watching cricket and Britain’s Got Talent, no less) to search India for the next great baseball talent. In reality, Vasudevan was a venture capitalist whose partner Will Chang came up with the scheme. Would the truth have made a less compelling film? Not at all.
The true failure in Million Dollar Arm is not in its reworking of history but in its choice of the lens through which history is filtered. Disney chose Hamm’s Bernstein, so that a pretty man with pretty things could get more pretty things, including a pretty wife, and somewhere along the way have an epiphanical father figure transition moment all within a 2-hour run time. A more interesting, compelling, and logical choice would have been to tell the story through the eyes of the aspiring Indian ball players Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal). The two youngsters came from nothing and, in real life, ended up far from home with their one billion countrymen watching as they attempt to do the impossible. The film touches on their story, obviously, but addresses them as noble savages, insulting the audience and illustrating the simplicity of the Hollywood film factory.
Even if the filmmakers had been afraid of non-white males as leads, another option would’ve been to explore the story through Tom House (Bill Paxton), the exiled former Major League pitcher and coach, among the first major leaguers to use steroids, whose coaching techniques were controversial, using research and technology to assess training needs, and frowned upon by the traditions of the sport, not unlike the statheads at the core of Moneyball. There is a natural redemption story in House’s tale as he attempts to take two boys who know nothing about a complicated game, who have never held a baseball, and make them legitimate prospects. But, Tom House is not pretty, and perhaps already had enough pretty things from a major league baseball career that the filmmakers figured his story was not one that audience would want to be spoon-fed.
The preposterous misguided swagger of Hollywoodism is confounding. A producer of last year’s 42 might well have suggested in a meeting to make Jackie Robinson Asian in order to appeal to the lucrative foreign market. Perhaps in a remake The Pride of the Yankees, Lou Gehrig could discover a cure for ALS, and rejoin the Yankees as manager, leading them to a dynasty in the ‘80s. ESPN’s The Bronx Is Burning, the story of the 1977 Yankees set against the backdrop of a tortuous summer for New York: blackouts, looting, finanical peril, and the NYPD’s hunt for the Son of Sam, would have been a far better film had John Turturro’s Billy Martin caught David Berkowitz, kicked his drinking problem, found a cure for the energy crisis, and single-handedly put out out the fires that raged through the Bronx in the summer of 1977.
There are other odd discrepancies in Million Dollar Arm. Patel’s subplot of wanting to buy his father a new delivery truck is all Disney. Brenda Fenwick (Lake Bell), Bernstein’s love interest (because you need a love interest) was not a doctor, as she is in the film. And Patel and Singh were actually from East St. Louis, and not Lucknow, India. Okay, that last part isn’t true, but: Hollywood indulges in changes to stories because they don’t trust in the audience’s ability to consume truth. But baseball is rooted in truth, truth that can be traced back and forward through generations. That truth is the sport’s lifeblood, its essence, and to alter it is folly. Million Dollar Arm is not a horrible film, but in its wake we’re left to wonder if a better film existed in the truth they chose not to tell.
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY
with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publoshing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player (Found Press,
2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.