Reviewed by James Owen
Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” looks like the ultimate “inside baseball” movie. As such, I shouldn’t like it. I was raised with a disdain for sports and haven’t developed patience for it as an adult (Except for you, fellas). But this Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (!) adaptation of the Michael Lewis novel isn’t so much about baseball as it’s about the Grand Idea—something so crazy that merely putting it into motion is legendary.
Usually, these films center on eccentric and/or obsessive characters who kick all life’s other responsibilities, including their loved ones, right in front of the bus of the Grand Idea. This is easier to see in films about business, like Martin Scorcese’s Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator” or the Sorkin-written Zuckerberg opus “The Social Network”. But this is also the root of underdog sports movies like “Slap Shot” or “A League of their Own.” How else do you beat the odds without a Grand Idea? I may not like sports, but “Moneyball” shows what’s possible in sports movies.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was a phenom as a recruit, meh as a player, and now floundering as the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Despite (or because of) a successful 2001 season, all of the good players are bolting for the big money of the Red Sox and the Royals. Ha ha. Just kidding, Kansas City. I meant the Yankees. Beane has no money and, despite his pleas, will not get any money. His scouts are from bygone days, dispensing the same type of thinking they’ve done for decades. Beane rages against it without really knowing why. He tries to cut a deal with GM Mark Shaprio of the Cleveland Indians, who tries to yank good prospects from him based on the advice of his minion, the Yale-educated Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Like any smart business man, Beane identifies Brand as a threat and offers him a job.
What makes Brand so good? His approach to prospect evaluation is different than the conventional wisdom. The scouts that so irritate Beane look at RBIs, stolen bases, and batting averages (and idiosyncratic details like basing a player’s confidence on the hotness of his girlfriend), where Brand looks at on-base percentages and other obscure-but-revealing statistics. This is too wonkish, too dorky, too new for a traditionalist sport like baseball.
Enter Moneyball! Having spent time in Lawrence, Kansas the home of Bill James, I had actually heard of this. James rose from obscurity in the early 1980s with tomes looking at baseball through a frame he coined “sabermetrics,” which focused on data-driven game analysis. Now, the film informs me James is a weirdo (a fair point) as well as, in the early part of the zero decade anyways, outside the conventional thinking.
After some fast-paced Sorkin-style whiteboarding, Beane puts together a team that causes a revolt with the scouts and consternation with the manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, so brilliant with so little). Howe resists this new system because he must manage in a way “he can explain in job interviews after the season.” This classic Sorkin line creates a sympathetic Howe because, well, you can’t really blame him. Lesser films would make him the bad guy, but “Moneyball” knows the Grand Idea doesn’t really have villains. It just has people who haven’t come around yet.
Where the tension lies in “Moneyball” is not in a protagonist-antagonist formula. It’s about time and pressure. It’s about watching the Grand Idea as it flounders and flops, is criticized and mocked. The opening of the 2002 season is a slow-burning agony; Bennet’ pacing is slow and lingering, contrary to the David Fincher approach of squeezing two pages of Sorkin’s script per minute in “The Social Network.” This goes to the purpose of this film: not to show the breakneck speed of an overnight success, but to make the audience question the outcome of something they should already know is true. Miller pulls it off with real style and skill.
Pitt wears the agony of losing like a tailor-made suit. He embodies the inherent contradiction of the film: his Grand Idea is predicated on rethinking a system so that it wouldn’t have picked him as a player out of high school. That failure drives this success—moneyball would weed out players like him. Some critics have complained Beane’s failure is not well-explained, but to my mind, it’s almost over-explained. If not for Pitt’s longing stares and defeated posture, it would be over-the-top. It’s not his just his rugged handsomeness without an expiration date that evokes Newman and Redford. He wears the emotional distress of his characters without beating us over the head. That’s an effortless movie star worthy of such comparisons.
Of course, things come around. This is perhaps a “spoiler,” but moneyball leads to the A’s to the longest regular season winning streak in America League history. Of course, critical sports historians will say the film omits the strength of the team’s pitchers. (Yes, I quoted NPR. I DON’T GET SPORTS!) But, folks, Grand Idea movies cannot cram in every fact. This is not a movie about a competent pitching staff, and you probably couldn’t sell that at $9 a ticket. The most gratifying part of “Moneyball” to watch Beane and Brand scheme and scrap their way toward realizing their vision from nearly two-and-half hours. They fire staff and trade players. They finesse the egos of some and blow off others. We know Pitt can do this, but the revelation is Jonah Hill, who proves to be just as good in a sober, not exactly offbeat drama as he is in the angst-ridden Apatow comedies.
“Moneyball” is not flawless. After the climax, the film dwells on for another twenty minutes about post-season decision-making that requires less dramatization than it’s given. Plus, the actual story has a female drought, so the film creates a daughter and ex-wife to occupy the audience’s interest. Ex-wife Sharon barely registers, despite being played by the great Robin Wright. Beane’s daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) fares better simply because she’s in the film more, but her presence exists only to give “Moneyball” an emotional hook it doesn’t really need.
In the end, this isn’t what drives Billy Beane—he’s animated by the obsession to prove others wrong, to keep going until you win or go crazy in the process. You don’t need to understand sports to get that. I can stop everything I am doing to watch “Apollo 13” and not have to know anything about astrophysics. Same way with sabermetrics. “Moneyball” is a smart, well-acted film about the mechanics of obsession. That’s the real American pastime.