Review: Moneyball

On his show Friday night, David Letterman cracked that Moneyball was “the most exciting movie I’ve ever seen about baseball statistics.” It was a joke, of course, but there’s an element of truth in it. It is the most exciting movie ever made about baseball statistics. But it’s not really about baseball statistics. As with most sports stories, it’s about redemption.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was a bonus baby phenom. He was drafted in the first round by the Mets and passed up a scholarship to Stanford to play pro ball. But he didn’t live up to the hype–he bounced around the majors for a few years, never playing more than 80 games in a season and retiring with a lifetime batting average of .219. As played by Pitt, this failure fuels his desire as the General Manager of the Oakland A’s to produce a world champion.

The film begins with the last day of the 2001 season. The A’s, who had been up 2-0 in a five-game series, lost to the Yankees (as a Yankee-hater I remember that series well; it hurt bad). Pitt goes to his owner and tells him they will lose three of their best players to free agency, and he needs more money to compete. The owner sympathizes, and in exposition that is for the audience more than Pitt, tells him Oakland is a small market team that can’t compete with teams like the Yankees financially.

Pitt then meets a young assistant with the Cleveland Indians, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). An economics major from Yale, who was probably the last player picked for Little League, Hill is a disciple of Bill James, the former security guard at a pork and bean cannery, who with his self-published Baseball Abstract had created a new way of evaluating players by use of statistics. Pitt hires Hill, and they confront their old-guard scouting staff with names that are immediately scoffed at. The old scouts believe in intuition and judging players by intangibles like physique and the attractiveness of their girlfriends. Hill believes that winning requires runs, and runs require being on base.

Pitt gets a lot of flak, but he’s the boss and the team is assembled and the rest of the film chronicles the season. It doesn’t start well, as manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn’t play the players Pitt wants him to. So he trades them. Eventually the team goes on an epic winning streak and Beane and Hill’s actions are validated–to a point.

I say to a point, because Beane, and the book on which this film is based, is still sneered at by some baseball people. They point to Beane’s never having been in a World Series, let alone won one. The A’s haven’t been to the playoffs since 2006. But it is undeniable that he changed the face of the game. As Red Sox owner John Henry says in a speech at the end of the film, James was right, and those who distrusted him really feared him.

Moneyball was directed by Bennett Miller, who helmed Capote, my favorite film of 2005. I’m eager to see what he does next, because Moneyball is almost pure delight. I’m a baseball fan, as one might be able to tell, but I think this film will appeal to anyone. It doesn’t get too technical–the most arcane statistic mentioned is on-base percentage, and even a novice who has a basic understanding of the game will understand the revolution going on here.

Beyond that, the film exceptionally details the ascent of a mountain of disapproval. Pitt, once he buys into Hill’s argument, is like an evangelist spreading the word. The film is edited at a fast pace, but is not in a rush. There are a few scenes, perhaps too many, of Pitt in an empty stadium, gazing into space, but for the most part the pace is thrilling. I loved the scenes of him working the phones in trades. If that’s not how it’s done, it should be. I came away green with envy–how fun it must be to work for a major league baseball team.

Some may scoff at scenes involving Pitt’s daughter. There’s one scene in a music store where she plays him a song. This could have been disastrously cloying, but I think it added necessary humanity to the character. Again, this movie isn’t about baseball. It’s about a man’s attempt at redemption, set against a backdrop of baseball, and it informs us to a key decision he makes at the end of the film.

As a baseball fan, I do have to point out some errors. Hill’s character is fictional; he’s based on a man named Paul DePodesta, who was already working for the A’s. Also, Jeremy Giambi and Chad Bradford, who are players that Pitt announces he wants after the 2001 season, were already on the team at that point (I remember that because Giambi was thrown out at the plate by the amazing play of Derek Jeter in the 2001 ALDS–his lack of hustle cost the As the series!)

But a lot of it is right on target. I double-checked with and they had the details right about the game that the A’s set the American League record for most wins a row (how did I forget that?) In movies like this, artistic license is almost always going to intrude, in this case it is at an acceptable level.

The acting here is good all around. Pitt gives the best performance I’ve seen him give. I was particularly impressed with his movement–the athletic grace that defines the smallest of movements, even snapping or pointing his fingers. Hill, in a much less flashy role, is also very good, a man who uses his specialized knowledge to work in a game that he loves. And I would have named you a hundred actors who could have played the pugnacious Art Howe before I got to Hoffman, who has never struck me as an athlete, but, by god, he makes it work. Maybe it’s the buzz-cut.

In some ways, Moneyball resembles last year’s The Social Network. Both detail a change of the guard in a portion of society (granted, Facebook changed a lot more than sabremetrics did, but in a relative way they made just as much a difference). The instigators of that change were both outsiders (Hill is the equivalent of Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg) and both were seen as juvenile upstarts. It’s no coincidence that Aaron Sorkin wrote both scripts (co-writing Moneyball with Steve Zaillian). While Moneyball isn’t as emotionally powerful as The Social Network, both are epic achievements.

I close by noting that Moneyball was originally going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who had to back out because of a conflict with Contagion. Both turned out to be good films, but I wonder how Soderbergh’s version would have been different.

My grade for Moneyball: A-


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

6 responses »

  1. Thought it was good.

    Definitely agree with you though, it’s a baseball movie all the way. I can’t imagine non-fans understanding much of what’s going on, frankly, since the movie seems to assume not only a working knowledge of baseball but at least a passing familiarity with sabermetrics. For example, does it even explain why these guys put a high value on walks? I think that I’d find Joe Morgan pretty persuasive if all I knew about the A’s was from this movie.

    But since I am a baseball fan, and since I have a pretty good handle on sabermetrics, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I don’t have any problem with the factual liberties taken, since a) all dramatizations twist facts to some degree, and b) I don’t think they really mattered to the movie’s central premise, which is that people with new ideas are bound to meet resistance from the old guard’s attachment to the status quo. I actually think it’s a better movie than The Social Network, as far as that comparison goes.

    I also thought Pitt was perfect, and was pleasantly surprised by Hill. I think Hoffman was a casting mistake, not because he doesn’t resemble Howe in the slightest, but because he’s such a damned Eeyore. It’s hard to imagine his version of Howe having the energy or interest to keep players motivated or even interested – he seemed so prickly and withdrawn. I read somewhere else that Ed Harris would have been a much better physical match for Howe, which is true, and I also think that Harris would have not played him as a guy who seems like he just wants to hide in the office and drink himself into oblivion.

  2. For what it’s worth, I’ve read that Howe was not a problem to Beane that season. It’s just that after the firing of the scouting director (who in reality had left the team a few seasons earlier), the movie needed a foil. Unfortunately for Howe, he was it. He’s claiming character assassination and is talking about suing.

  3. Well, good luck with that, Art.

    I recall the book painting him as not exactly on the same page as Beane, although not nearly in as strong of terms.

  4. I don’t have much to say on the topic, except that I also agree that it’s a baseball movie. Watching Jonah Hill on Conan the other night, he was trying to convince people that you’ll like it if you don’t like baseball.

    I think for people who don’t like baseball to enjoy this, it would have to be trimmed down to an hour TV special. But I do think that Pitt and Hill were pretty good.

  5. I didn’t think it was quite deserving of the praise it got, but a pretty impressive film all the same; you don’t get too many sports films (fiction or not) that have as much intelligence as this.

    From my presumptions about the film beforehand, my biggest surprise is Beane’s character; he’s actually quite harshly depicted at times as a difficult and abrasive personality. Certainly one could understand why many doubted his adoption of ‘Moneyball’ tactics in the exasperating way he introduced it. Certainly Pitt deserves some kudos for bringing that to the character.

    I liked Hill’s understated performance although it’s a surprise it got an Oscar nomination. Was surprised how small Seymour Hoffman’s role was and how largely unnecessary his character was; not terribly surprised to learn that his opposition was largely fictionalised as it didn’t make terribly much sense in the context of the film.

    A pretty good film, but a couple of levels below Miller’s ‘Foxcatcher’ imo.

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