I love baseball about as much as I love mowing the grass. It’s safe to say that I am not the ideal audience for Moneyball, the more-or-less true story of how Billy Beane, the general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland As’s, reinvented his team in the early 2000s in an effort to change the sport to which he had dedicated his life.
Lovers of the sport, I’m sure, will experience this on a whole other level, bou don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate Moneyball.
The A’s had become a farm team for better franchises that were picking off its best players. Faced with rebuilding but lacking the money to buy the most coveted ballplayers, Beane instead hired as his assistant a Yale-educated business grad who used mathematical formulas to help Beane pick players no other team wanted but who possessed the skills necessary to help the A’s win games.
Brad Pitt plays Beane, bringing the sort of low-key Redfordesque charm that has become his trademark. He also invests the character with an emotional depth. We’ve seen him do equal work in films such as Babel and, earlier this year, The Tree of Life. This time, however, his work is front and center, the way it could never be films helmed by ambitious visionaries such as Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu or Terrence Malick.
Moneyball is directed in solid, workmanlike style by Bennett Miller, who made his feature film debut in 2005 with Capote.
Jonah Hill brings humor to his role of a buttoned-down, young assistant director. Philip Seymour Hoffman adds strong support as the strong-willed team manager who thinks Beane’s ideas and his draft picks are loony and who has no intention of playing by Beane’s playbook.
An interesting story about Beane in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine talks about how other teams subsequently adopted many of the innovations that Beane introduced to the game, “thus eliminating whatever stealth advantages he once enjoyed.”
“The Moneyball philosophy ultimately triumphed,” writes Adam Sternbergh, the author of the story, “but Billy Beane never quite did.”
Followers of the sport know that already, so this isn’t really a spoiler except to people like me, who may go to the movie expecting a traditional uplifting sports movie ending. But by the end such moviegoers will already have experienced a film that is anything but a traditional sports movie. It trades on different strengths.
It offers some of the expected sports-movie pleasures - the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and all that - but the grassy diamond isn’t really where Moneyball excels. It’s chosen field of play is the back room, the sports offices, the strategizing and mind games that go on that outsiders never see and that know-it-all sports writers can only guess at.
This is inside baseball made accessible even to baseball doofuses like me.
Written by Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin (Sorkin wrote the wonderful Social Network), Moneyball places the focus squarely on character and on dialogue.
Beane, at 18, had been considered a sure thing, a star in waiting that baseball scouts were certain would excel. He passed up the chance to go to Stanford to play ball. And he failed at it.
The movie, based on a 2003 book by Michael Lewis, presents this as a reason for Beane’s distrust of conventional baseball thinking.
Baseball, and baseball movies, lend themselves to a certain amount of romanticization. Moneyball romanticizes not only the sport but also Beane. It portrays him as an idealist instead of simply a general manager trying to keep his job, a disadvantaged competitor trying to win.
I don’t buy the romance of the game hooey. But, then, I didn’t need to. Look at Moneyball as just a story about a likeable, resourceful guy resisting orthodoxy and fighting against the odds, and it’s still a good movie.