Moneyball (Also Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Four Stars)
U. S.: Bennett Miller, 2011 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you read the spreadsheet.
For many Americans, baseball is a great American game, and a great American sports myth as well — and it’s also, at times, a business, a gamble, a crud-boatload of media hype, and, last and maybe best of all, a kind of national secular bridge-building semi-religion that binds together all classes and races and sexes and geographical areas and types: the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the left and the right, the rural and the urban, the bad and the good. Potentially almost everybody, but especially the ones of us who played it on grassy country fields or city playgrounds when we were young, or watched the games on TV, or listened to them on the radio, or read about them in the paper. Like me.
Amazingly, Moneyball — based on a real-life season (2002) with the Oakland Athletics, and their real-life general manager, Billy Beane — hits all those bases and sometimes more. Hyperbole over movies sometimes goes down swinging. But this picture really is, as many have said ad prizes attest, one of the best baseball movies ever made, one of the best pictures of the year, and a movie for which Brad Pitt, who plays Billy Beane and helped shepherd the project along for years, deserves an Oscar nomination and maybe even the big prize itself.
On the other hand, Moneyball is also a movie that makes you somewhat suspicious of big prizes and about their real value — as a gauge of talent or a measure of worth. As this picture makes clear, it isn’t necessarily the final winner who has the most interesting history, or who changes the game, or whose story will make the best movie. Sometimes the real story doesn’t even lie entirely on the playing field, but also in the team offices and meeting rooms where the general managers, executives, scouts and the number crunchers battle it out, deciding who plays and who gets traded or cut — which is a large part of the area director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (working from a Stan Chervin story, based on Michael Lewis’ book) examine and bring to life here.
Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg
Lewis’ book, also called Moneyball, is reputedly a piece of smart, thorough reportage about how Beane really did seem to change the game, by bringing computers and statistical analysis to the old provinces of experience-knack-and-hunch player selection. The main story shows how Billy B. and a fictional number-cruncher called here Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) applied the science or pseudo-science of sabermetrics (invented and dubbed by Bill James) to the Oakland A’s. The A’s had just been to the American League playoffs in 2001 and not only lost the series (to the New York Yankees), but then lost some of their top players, including sluggers Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, to the richer, higher-paying teams like the Yankees (the Rockefellers of baseball) and the Boston Red Sox. The rich get richer? The Yankees then had a player budget of 126 million dollars, to 41 million for the A’s. And Beane was told by the new owners he couldn’t exceed it.
The core story Moneyball tells is about how Beane coped with the high-stakes, high-money industry that baseball had become — penalizing the smaller, lower-budgeted teams like Oakland, and rewarding financial monoliths like the Yankees — by going scientific: by finding better number-crunchers to find him better, cheaper players, players who were overlooked or undervalued under the old system, but whom he could both afford and who could win for him and whom, using sabermetrics and Peter Brand, he could find. (Part of the crux of sabermetrics lay in putting more value on some of the more ignored statistical measures — like on-base percentage and slugging percentage.)
In other words, it’s a classic sports underdog David-vs.-Goliath yarn, but with a new twist. Now the movie David’s weapon is not a slingshot, or more heart, but — as in co-scenarist Sorkin‘s last screenplay The Social Network — a computer.
The major personal draw of Moneyball as a movie is Beane himself, who had an unusual and dramatic backstory — especially as Zaillian and Sorkin write it for Pitt. Billy was a two sport star in youth (baseball and football), hailed as a can’t-miss superstar in either. Stanford offered him a football scholarship to back up John Elway at quarterback and The New York Mets offered him a bonus to jump-start his baseball career right out of high school — and he made the wrong choice, and he made it for money. (The Mets.) Beane claims he never made a choice based on more dough again.
Anyway, superstardom never materialized, and ten years later, Beane was a reserve outfielder and benchwarmer for his fourth team, the A’s — shunted aside in the big show, a guy who lacked that one last little piece maybe, or maybe had too much attitude. So Billy gave up his first dream and moved to the front office, taking his moxie and his attitude with him, and he took over the reins eventually from another statistics convert, Sandy Alderson, and then tried to learn fast how to win cheap. Because he had to. It was Oakland.
In the movie, he finds a quiet, sort-of-chubby Yale graduate business guy, Peter Brand, hanging around the Cleveland Indians office during trading talks, and recruits. Then Beane tries to work his little sabermetrics revolution — alienating some of the old school scouts and personnel guys, including his crusty, dour-faced old school manager Art Howe — fabulously played, in a real change of pace, by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose last role for Miller was glib raconteur/novelist Truman Capote in Capote. (Howe himself dislikes this portrayal.)
The rest of the movie shows whether he does it. (Baseball fans will know already, non-fans won’t want to, just yet.) But we can say that Beane brings a number of new faces — notably vets Scott Hatteberg and David Justice (Chris Pratt and Stephen Bishop), plus a great pitching staff — and eventually gets some remarkable results, despite the old school’s exasperation and Howe’s quiet disgust.
We can also say, in the safety of a Spoiler Alert, that a lot of the movie‘s on-field tension comes from the 11-game losing streak that opens the season and a possible record-breaking winning streak the team runs up later. That’s the amazing story in front of the amazing backroom front-office story, Billy Beane’s story.
END OF SPOILER
The writers, director and star Pitt seem to have justly captured Billy Beane as a character — at least according to Beane himself. The second part of the two-man heart-of-the-lineup is Jonah Hill as Brand, who’s almost as responsible for the movie‘s appeal beyond a sports fan base as Pitt. Brand is loosely based on Paul DePodesta, Beane’s actual assistant g.m. (and later a g.m. in Los Angeles). But DePodesta objected to being portrayed as a numbers nerd, which he’s not, and thereby lost his chance to become an immortal movie character. One of the things that probably makes the movie work so well for audiences, is that deviation from fact. It’s more interesting, and dramatic, to show the two baseball revolutionaries as a jock and a nerd, and probably more attractive for the male (and even female) audience, who after all comprise more nerds than real jocks. Pitt and Hill, in any case, turn out to have flawless chemistry
This was already something of a Brad Pitt movie year, because of the long-delayed The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick‘s astonishingly beautiful, reverie-strewn semi-autobiographical family drama, in which Pitt did sterling service as the father. Moneyball isn’t the instant classic that Tree of Life was, but it’s a movie that will obviously reach many more people. And Billy Beane, which is a trickier and more attractive role — as fast-talking a movie boss as Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, and as nervy a rebel as Paul Newman in his heyday — is much more of an Oscar-or-other-awards possibility.
Pitt is often low-rated. It doesn’t help, of course, that he (and his wife Angelina Jolie) are such omnipresent front page figures in the scandal mags and rags. That doesn’t alter the fact that, despite the temptations of stardom, he‘s remained a very good, sometimes excellent, movie actor ever since, that he‘s always been open to offbeat projects (Coen Brothers’ or otherwise), that he enjoys making fun of his own star image, and that, well along in his career he can come up with a double whammy like The Tree of Life and Moneyball, both of which owe a lot of their high quality, and maybe even their existence, to him. (Needless to say, there have been a few reviews that suggest that Pitt is Billy Beane, which after all is just the effect that every fine actor strives to achieve.)
Pitt’s Billy Beane is a live-wire, good-hearted, smart but frustrated jock willing to look unconventional and think way outside the box, and Pitt gives him exactly the right mix of half-cocky confidence, nervous intensity and inner warmth. His scenes with Robin Wright as his ex-wife Sharon and with Kerris Dorsey as his musician daughter Casey are wonderful — as were the family scenes with wife and sons in The Tree of Life. Pitt makes us feel for this guy even when he has to handle a tough personnel matter, let somebody go. Where another actor might have unintentionally made Beane look callous, or over-sentimentalized him, Pitt plays him with great clarity as a guy who‘s been on the other side of this kind of scene himself and knows how it feels. And he’s wonderful also with Hill as the awkward, brainy, workaholic Brand — a great foil/sidekick performance, which Hill does about as well as it could be done.
This project was earlier slated for director Steven Soderbergh, who left after he took the script in a different direction — and I have to say I think Soderbergh’s version (which would have included on-camera interviews with actual players) probably would have been just as good, if different. But Bennett Miller, an ace at low-key behavioral realism who did a fine, carefully wrought job (along with star Hoffman) taking us inside the complex psychology and meticulous personae of author Capote on his In Cold Blood gig, does just as well making these pro baseball characters and their world come alive, and stay alive. That’s why the movie is able to get away from the usual bias of sports movies against numbers-crunchers and the head office. Moneyball is fun to watch because, compared to most of what we see from Hollywood, it’s such a smart film, and because it’s film that celebrates smartness.
For that, we have to thank everyone involved, but probably especially the writers Zaillian and Sorkin (who worked separately). In many ways, this is primarily a writer’s film, and one can only feel grateful at how the two screenwriters (in whatever degree, and to whatever degree Miller helped them) brought us into this world, introduced us to these people and opened it all up for us — which is exactly what the best movies usually do.
When I was a kid, in summer, I played baseball almost every day with my friends, in the huge grassy Observatory Field in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and we also all followed the Braves and were mostly big Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews fans. I wasn’t very good, but I loved it. (Of course I read even more, and that proved more important in the end.) But I gave up on the romance of baseball, and stopped watching it on TV, after closely following the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homer race, and then getting burned by the steroid stories afterwards. (Remember that homer they took away from McGuire, an old Oakland slugger then with St. Louis, late in the race — erroneously, I always thought?)
The great thing about Moneyball is that it made me realize both why I fell in and out of love with baseball, and why so many others fell for it too. You don’t feel like a sucker watching this movie, but it gets to you. It brings back those summer days, the way the sunlight fell on the bright green infield grass with runners on second and third, the catcher calling “Hey batter, hey batter, swing batter,“ the crack of the bat, the high fly fall disappearing into the blue and against the clouds, going, going…
Extras: Featurettes; Deleted Scenes; Blooper Reel.