By Linc Leifeste | September 22, 2011
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: Steven Zaillian (screenplay), Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), Stan Chervin (story), Michael Lewis (book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Ken Medlock, Brent Jennings, Kerris Dorsey
Disclaimer: Despite becoming a bigger and bigger fan of the sport of baseball over time and numerous recommendations over the years, I have never read Michael Lewis’ acclaimed 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and am therefore unable to speak about how true the film is to the book. That said, I was able to enter the theater without preconceived notions or expectations and can say that Moneyball is one of my favorite movies of 2011.
Moneyball is based on the true story of how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) bucked the system to field a competitive ballclub on a relatively miniscule operating budget. It struck a nerve with me in these trying times, with America’s fiscal woes combined with an apparent unwillingness to think outside of the box and take bold, decisive action. For those that don’t know, Major League Baseball doesn’t have a salary cap to help even the playing field, thus allowing team owners with deeper pockets to outspend less wealthy owners and stock their clubs with marquee players. This, in part, helps explain the recurring greatness you see in a team like the New York Yankees and the continual struggles of teams like the Oakland Athletics. Much like in life, there are the have’s and there are the have-not’s and they have to compete on the same playing field, fair or not.
The film opens with the tail-end of Oakland’s 2001 season, with the A’s playing the proverbial “David” to the New York Yankees’ “Goliath”, seeing a 2-0 game lead in the American League Division Series evaporate with three straight losses. Adding insult to injury, big-market teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox immediately swoop in after the season ends and nab the A’s few star players. GM Beane initially reacts conventionally, heading to the A’s owner to unsuccessfully ask for more money and then moving on to try to make some beneficial trades with other MLB teams to prepare for the 2002 season. While meeting with the Cleveland Indian brass, every trade he attempts is shot down based on the whispered advice of an unknown young man. Frustrated and intrigued, Beane seeks him out and finds this young man to be recent Yale graduate and economics major Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a disciple of at that time cutting edge sabermetrics, the objective analysis of baseball performance through key statistics, as espoused by obsessive baseball fan, statistician and writer, Bill James.
After interrogating Brand on his reasoning, Beane soon offers him a job with the A’s and makes him the assistant manager. This youngster’s newfound position of trust with GM Beane doesn’t sit well with the A’s large scouting staff, made up of crusty old baseball veterans who are operating on old-school ideas and experiences. Brand’s analytical and statistical analysis of player’s performances (and resulting monetary value), all derived through complex formulas processed via computer, doesn’t jive with the older scouts’ sense of gut instinct and experiential wisdom. And while not a theme that was delved into, I found myself somewhat sympathetic to the older scouts’ painful John Henry-like marginalization when confronted with the steam-engine like efficiency of computer-crunched stats.
Neither does A’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) appreciate Beane’s new direction or his heavy-handed advice on managing the day to day games. One of the great joys of the movie is watching confident Beane and introverted novice Brand interact with each other and with the baseball establishment. Beane ultimately perserveres despite career-risking initial failures and finds success. That said, for those who don’t know, I won’t give away how the 2002 season ultimately plays out for Beane and the Oakland Athletics.
While the film doesn’t give a lot of detail on Beane’s personal life, allowing only small glimpses into his relationships with ex-wife Sharon (Robin Wright) and daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), it does provide bit by bit the back-story of Beane’s personal experience as a baseball player, his failed MLB career and the impact that had on his professional life. Pitt’s restrained but forceful performance makes it hard not to feel invested in his character’s success or failure. As well I appreciated the absence of a forced Hollywood romance angle and got the sense that Beane’s dogged devotion to his professional endeavors probably didn’t leave much time or energy for a dynamic personal life.
Baseball fans, you’ll love this movie. For me, a Texas Rangers fan, it was a thrill to see Ron Washington (Brent Jennings) portrayed on the big screen and to recognize former Ranger Royce Clayton in his small role as Miguel Tejada. But for those who don’t consider themselves fans of America’s pastime, this movie offers much more. Despite its focus on statistics and sabermetrics it’s ultimately a beautifully told human story of perseverance against great odds, of following through on your convictions, of outsiders successfully taking on the establishment, all presented intelligently and free of tired cliches.