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 Baseball-Reference.com 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-