Truth, Based on a Story: Disney’s MILLION DOLLAR ARM

Truth, Based on a Story: Disney’s MILLION DOLLAR ARM

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.

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
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,
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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Jimbo Johanson

Nobody goes to see a Disney sports movie because of it's faithful retelling of actual events. And this is a little-known story, unlike the als0-referenced 42.

It doesn't make much sense to say you disliked the film because it's not truthful. It's not a documentary. It's a fiction, feel-good Disney film. Disney made the choices they did because they felt like the arc of a down-on-his luck agent, combined with that of the Indian kids, made for a better movie.

Disney's not going to go nuts in delving into the redemption story of a steroid-user-turned coach.

Aside from that, there's really no reason given why the "true" events would make a better movie. Why would Jon Hamm's girlfriend not being a doctor make it a more interesting film? Why would giving the central idea to go find a pitcher in India to the protagonist's business partner's partner make it a better movie? (Oh wait, that last one clearly wouldn't be, as the whole idea for the movie's centra conceit coming from the protagonist is generally an accepted storytelling tradition in narrative films).

And they didn't make it the story of two Indian dudes coming to America to play ball because they wanted audiences to come see it, and Jon Hamm as the lead at least makes more sense than two Indian actors nobody's heard of.

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