“Moneyball” is a sports movie, but one where most of the action takes place in meetings, offices and locker-room conversations than on the field.
This might make the film sound boring, but it’s anything but, especially when it features one of Brad Pitt’s greatest performances as Billy Beane, the brash, forward-thinking manager of the Oakland A’s. “Moneyball,” which is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Michael Lewis, documents how Beane revolutionized baseball by using new-fangled statistics to seek out undervalued players and assemble a winning team on the cheap. The movie opens just as the plucky-but-cash-poor A’s have been bounced from the playoffs by the mighty Yankees, and Beane is forced to watch helplessly as his top three players — Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen — bolt for bigger markets and more money. He’s desperate for a new way to think about and evaluate players, and he finds one when he meets a socially-awkward stats geek named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who promises Beane that it’s possible to win by signing good players other teams view as flawed. Getting on base, Brand explains, is more important than driving in runs.
Directed by Bennett Miller and written by veteran scribes Aaron Sorkin (whose screenplay for “The Social Network” also focused on a bunch of smart guys sitting around and talking) and Steven Zaillan, “Moneyball” is part character study and part underdog story. For all the talk about how different “Moneyball” is from the average sports movie, it does borrow some of the genre’s conventions. Like the 2004 film “Miracle,” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, “Moneyball” focuses on a visionary leader, rather than the players, who never really emerge as full-fledged characters. (Until he’s traded, unrepentant bad boy Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo) adds some personality to the locker room.) And, much like the family classic “The Bad New Bears,” the film presents a ragtag team that at first glance appears to be a joke, but ultimately proves the doubters wrong when it wins 20 games in a row and storms into the playoffs.
These are classic formulas, but what distinguishes “Moneyball” is its smarts, attention to back-room wheeling and dealing (one of the film’s most exciting scenes occurs on trading day, when Brand and Beane work the phones and fleece their competitors) and strong sense of melancholy.
The melancholy largely stems from Beane, whom the film portrays as a man in a permanent state of existential crisis; even when his team wins, he expresses doubt and anxiety. “None of this matters,” he tells a disbelieving Brand after the A’s break the major league record for winning streaks. “All that matters is winning the last game of the season.”
The film suggests that Beane is confident, reckless and brash, but remains tormented by his failures as a major league baseball player and haunted by a long-ago conversation with a scout, who assured him that he was a can’t-miss-prospect. “Moneyball” suggests that Beane’s personal history explains why he was so open to evaluating players differently; when Brand tells him he would have selected him late in the draft, he nods approvingly. At last! he seems to be thinking. Someone who can see the real me.
Of course, Beane’s determination to do things differently infuriates the old-school baseball types (i.e., most everybody else) in his midst. The scouts feel disrespected and complain that you can’t use a computer to field a team, while Beane’s manager, Art Howe (the terrific Philip Seymour Hoffman), refuses to play the players the way Beane wants them to be played. This conflict, between old-school baseball types and wonky stats guys, is still playing out today, although most teams appear to have adopted certain aspects of the moneyball philosophy. But the film has a larger point to make, about the conventional thinking that dominates basically every institution on earth, and the need, every now and again, to shake things up by trying something new.
The film feels strangely sad as it nears its conclusion, perhaps because we know that the A’s will not go on to win the World Series, and that they have not, in fact, made the post-season since 2006. But part of the sadness stems from Beane, who never watches the games and, for all his talk of baseball as a team sport, is often seen driving around alone, checking in on a game on his radio. He’s a solitary character, a divorced man who doesn’t see his daughter enough, refuses to travel with the team because he doesn’t want emotion to cloud his thinking when it’s time to trade or cut players and appears to have no close friends.
Near the end of the film, Beane is summoned to Boston to meet with Red Sox owner John Henry about the team’s general manager position, but he declines to accept Henry’s offer, preferring to stay in Oakland. In many ways, this is a deeply foolish decision, but it made me like Beane all the more and even relate to him. This is someone who loves to win, but his allegiance to struggling institutions makes it all the harder for him to do so. Pitt is simply excellent at conveying every aspect of Beane’s personality — his loving dad side, his competitor side, his self-destructive and lonely side.
There’s plenty to argue with in “Moneyball,” of course. Some have argued that the film ignores key players that were drafted high (click here), while others have suggested that Oakland’s failure to win a world series casts doubt on the whole moneyball approach to baseball. One conversation in particular made me smile. It’s when Brand argues that Johnny Damon is a nice player, but that the Red Sox overpaid for him. As a Red Sox fan, I would argue that Johnny Damon’s grand slam in game 7 of the 2004 ALDS was worth at least half his contract, because I will never forget it for the rest of my life.
“Moneyball” ends by informing us that Beane still has not won the last game of the season, but that the Red Sox went on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years in part because they adopted his revolutionary approach to baseball. There is truth to some of this, of course, but one can certainly quibble. If I remember correctly, many of the key players on that 2004 team were the sorts of overpriced stars that Brand and his ilk caution against — guys such as Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Damon and Derek Lowe.
The final scenes, which suggest John Henry is some kind of genius, are especially interesting to watch in light of the fact that people in Boston are currently calling for Henry’s head, and wondering whether the team is relying on computers and spreadsheets a little too much. But “Moneyball” is such a fun movie that these details don’t really matter. The debates it fuels are enjoyable, the characters it presents are lively, the dialogue crackles and the story is compelling. What more could you possibly want?
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