Moneyball (2011)

Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin

Moneyball is perhaps the most interesting entry into this baseball marathon for so many different reasons because whether you like it or not it brings up a discussion on the traditional idea of baseball versus the new age statistical analysis of baseball found in sabermetrics. This is an argument that could be had until the end of time, and I’m sure I’ll inadvertently talk about it in this review, but otherwise I’m going to try and avoid picking a side because there is so much more to this movie than simply that argument, which is what makes it so great. Exploring what the front office of baseball looks like is what makes this movie unique from past entries in the baseball movie canon, affording it a lot of unexplored space within the sport with which it can play and present something completely new and different to the audience.

The Oakland Athletics, a small market team with a small budget, has just once again lost in the Playoffs to a team with a much higher payroll. Set to lose its three biggest players to the free agent market, where they can get quite a bit more money, A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is forced to rethink his approach to building a team, turning to the young, ambitious and forward thinking Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to inform his startling strategy which alienates himself from not just his best scouts, but also the teams manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). After a difficult start to the season, thanks in part to push back from Howe in playing the players Beane and Brand want, the radical approach begins to gain ground as the A’s begin a winning streak like baseball has never seen before.

I think it would be very easy to turn this film review into talking shop about baseball the entire time, but at it’s core this is a really interesting, and I think good, movie. Bennett Miller, who replaced Steven Soderbergh as the film’s director, is a great choice and the mood he sets is certainly his signature, suiting the kind of ominous atmosphere that surrounds this “experiment”. Brad Pitt’s charisma helps his performance as Billy Beane, turning in a fairly wacky performance which somehow fits with the type of guy essentially throwing up his hands with what he has to deal with (very little money) while still trying to build a winning club. Most of Beane’s actions/reactions seem to be in frustration to how unfair the game has become as a business (because as we all know, baseball is a fair game on the field, and yes, I’m being serious).

When I hear detractors, I often hear talk about Beane’s daughter playing such a large part, of the flashbacks to Beane’s own playing career, but I think, while neither is particularly great, each adds something to the character study of Beane. At one point one of his scouts even says that his new strategy of numbers is just him reacting to a scout getting it wrong by thinking Beane himself would be a star. There is truth to that, and seeing these few scenes in his past help inform that decision by Beane to go all in on Brand’s sabermetric approach. Beane’s relationship with his daughter, like with Peter, is simply validation of self-worth. Beane is a father encouraging his daughter to pursue her passion of music, for her to see how great she is and can be, yet he struggles to see her support of him pursuing his passion in baseball, his self-worth and belief in himself. As a character study the film works.

Okay, so Moneyball is a character study, but it’s also a great dramatic sports movie during the aforementioned streak, which is capped by one of the few actual baseball scenes in the movie with Hatteberg’s (Chris Pratt) home run. Moneyball transcends genres, in particular the baseball genre, by paving its own way and telling its own redemptive story of an “island of misfit toys”. I know it gets some things about the truth wrong. I know it ignores factors like the A’s having Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder on the mound, or MVP Miguel Tejada at shortstop, or the capable players Eric Chavez and Jermaine Dye on the roster as well. As a baseball man, I know ignoring these contributors to focus on David Justice, Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteberg is unfair to the true representation of the 2002 Oakland Athletics. But that’s not the story being told here.

I also know that it is unfair to all of baseball to claim that the Red Sox were able to win the World Series using Beane’s philosophy just a few years later. I think most people would fall somewhere in the middle, valuing and honoring statistics, but still turning to the eye test, and superstar philosophy of major market teams who pay boatloads of cash to field great teams. But by the same token, throwing money at players often doesn’t work (re: Toronto Blue Jays and Miami Marlins of the last few years). There must be a compromise, a blend of the two philosophies in order to field a great team, and one which will draw fan support, ticket sales, and profit. Seeing Beane’s struggle in a small market is compelling to the baseball fan inside of me (and yes, it is also unfair to ignore the fact that fellow small market team Minnesota Twins were the team to eliminate the 2002 A’s in the playoffs).

Perhaps it is my analytical mind, or just my pure love of the game of baseball and what it would be like to handle the responsibilities of a general manager, but Moneyball is unlike any other baseball movie experience in the best of ways. It is new, fresh, current, and manages to pack so many different things into one package in the most successful of ways. By approaching baseball with statistics, Beane was in fact ignoring statistics when it came to signing players. As Peter Brand states, they were looking to buy wins, while other teams sought home runs, runs batted in, etc. To see the clashing of baseball philosophies in such a stark contrast may not have been exactly accurate to the real 2002 Oakland Athletics, but it doesn’t have to be. Moneyball is an entertaining film, any way you cut it.

***1/2 – Great

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