The film “Moneyball” might appear, to those who are unaware that it is a true story, to be another clichéd underdog sports movie; the type of film we’ve all seen ad nauseam, where a group of players, who no one believes in, bands together to buck the odds and win the championship of whatever particular sport the film deals with. I’ve seen those sorts of movies and will wholeheartedly admit that I have, on occasion, loved some of them, “Miracle” (2004) immediately comes to mind, but that is not the sort of story “Moneyball” deals with. Instead of providing excitement through clichéd victory, it is a factually based portrait of the cold and calculating business side of the game of baseball.
Directed by Bennett Miller, (Capote) “Moneyball” is the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team which ascended to notoriety because of its low payroll and unorthodox player selection. The 133 minute DVD was released on January 10th of this year. Steven Zaillian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), have teamed up to write an emotionally satisfying and sharp screenplay, adapted from Michael Lewis’s best selling book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The film’s narrative flow centers mainly on Oakland’s general manager Billy Beane, a former can’t-miss prospect, who had a lackluster career in the major leagues. He is portrayed by the charismatic and talented Brad Pitt (Fight Club) who fuels the film. Pitt had plenty of dialogue to work with in this movie, but in this blogger’s opinion, several factors went into making his performance in “Moneyball” one of the best of his career. Firstly, his conveying of emotional turmoil that was simmering under the surface of his character, and secondly the way he was able to display to the viewer, through his eyes, the catharsis that his character is dealing with during moments of self reflection that deal with frustration, pain and the what if questions of life.
The catalyst which kicks off the plot of “Moneyball” is game five of the 2001 American League Division Series. The New York Yankees have just eliminated the Oakland A’s from advancing to the American League Championship game. To add insult to injury, Oakland’s general manager, Billy Beane, knows that was his last shot to win the World Series with his three marquee players that he will be losing to free agency due to his team’s budget constraints. First baseman Jason Giambi signed with the Yankees, centerfielder Johnny Damon went onto became one of the key players to help the Boston Red Sox end the so-called Curse of the Bambino in 2004, and relief pitcher Jason Isringhausen was a free agent and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Rebuilding time had come to Oakland, albeit rebuilding with a meager payroll when compared to the big market teams who can compete using their deep pockets.
Pitt’s character of Beane decides to approach the problem in a radical way that is put forth by his new assistant general manager, Peter Brand played by Jonah Hill (Superbad). As an aside, in this blogger’s opinion, Jonah Hill asserts himself in the role of Brand as an actor whose range far exceeds many of his previous roles in raunchy comedies. Brand is a timid, Yale educated, economically minded wizard. He is a proponent of Sabermetrics, a concept put forth and coined by baseball historian, statistician, and writer, Bill James, who in 2006 was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 hundred most influential people in the world. Sabermetrics, to bring the concept down to its bare basics for the purposes of this blog, uses statistical information to analyze a player’s performance in regard to the player’s contribution to the team instead of just individual statistics like batting average or how many errors they make. Furthermore, sabermetrics also takes into account with its analysis the entire team’s offensive output in terms of runs not just team batting average. James himself has said that sabermetrics is the “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.”
At wits end due to an ownership that won’t fork over anymore money for talent, Pitt’s character adopts the sabermetrics system. Beane and Brand go about plugging the Oakland lineup with players that are unwanted or undervalued by every other team. Naturally, Beane is met with harsh criticism and opposition from just about everyone involved in the organization. One of the opponents to the A’s new system is the then Oakland manager, Art Howe, captured by Philip Seymour Hoffman (25th Hour) as a weary looking man, who comes across as both standoffish and stubborn. He does not embrace the new system; instead he opts to stick to managing the team based on his baseball instincts. It is not until Beane removes all of the players Howe is defiantly sticking with, that Howe is forced to abandon instincts, and activate the players that were brought on board based on Brand’s sabermetrics analysis.
Trivia buffs take note, the character Jonah Hill is portraying is actually that of Paul DePodesta, who was Billy Beane’s assistant, but did not wish to have his real name used in the film. In addition, during the 2002 season, The Oakland A’s did set the new American League record for consecutive wins with twenty straight victories. The all time major league baseball record for consecutive wins is twenty-six held by the 1916 New York Giants (San Francisco Giants since 1958). “Moneyball” was nominated for six Oscars at the 84th annual Academy Awards, including best picture, making it the first baseball themed movie to be considered for that prestigious award since “Field of Dreams” was nominated twenty-two years earlier. Sadly, no one involved with the film walked away with an 8.5 pound golden statuette, but if you’re a fan of America’s pastime this movie swings for the fences and succeeds. Non-baseball fans should be able to appreciate the film’s emotion, strong character driven performances, and intelligence.