Let’s get the positioning of the film Moneyball out of the way at once. Though it is a film about baseball – it’s not quite mentionable in the same breath, or same way as Hoosiers with it’s last second winning shot, or Rudy with its miraculous touchdown catch by a kid deemed too small to play, or even The Natural with Robert Redford hitting a homerun into the light towers causing the light bulbs to explode, the crowd to roar, hats to be tossed into the air in the delirium of victory, and of course, the music swelled. It’s nothing like those films. There is a magical game-winning hit, but it doesn’t conclude the season, or even the film.
This was real life, and as the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane mused, “If you don’t win the last game of the season, no one will remember what came before.”
Therefore we can say that Moneyball isn’t a classic sports film with an uplifting ending at all. Given the title, you then might think it is about the art of the deal, or about the business of baseball, and to a degree it is. Beane set out to change the game of baseball. He said the game was unfair – How could a team with a $39 million dollar payroll successfully compete against a team with a $114 million dollar payroll. In fact the film opens with the Oakland A’s losing to the New York Yankees in the playoffs to end the A’s 2001 season.
So going into the 2002 seasons, Beane’s A’s lost three key players to free agency, and he was told by the team’s ownership that there would not be more money coming in to replace those players. So making millions, or being a major player in the acquisition of expensive players on the free agent market isn’t the topic of the film either. They were a small market team with a small budget and Beane had to make it work.
Moneyball, the film, came out of Michael Lewis‘ best selling book, Moneyball -The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Beane said that the A’s would have to become the baseball equivalent of a card-counter playing at a blackjack table. They would turn the odds on the casino.
That put him in direct opposition to the way things were done in baseball for the past 100 years. Beane, along with his sabermetrician Peter Brand – played by the marvelous Jonah Hill, were going to turn the way players were scouted and developed on its head.
It didn’t come easy and there was a lot of opposition. Billy Beane would have to take on his field manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman had the role) and the A’s entire scouting department. No longer would players be scouted and signed according to some special or unique things the scout saw (or thought he saw) or liked in a player like his swing, or his power, or his arm. Personalities and personal information, and a scout’s intuition, which had long been considered valuable parts of the selection process would be scrapped and no longer considered viable discussion points. Beane was effectively telling his scouts that a calculator and a computer program were going to be the basis for him deciding who to take in the draft and who to sign from the free agent pool of players.
As the 2002 season started, Beane and Brand had assembled a team based on their computer print-outs. The A’s started slowly and then things got worse. Beane had blowups with Howe, and his chief scouts, and when the team was joking and even dancing in the clubhouse after a loss, Beane lost it.
Well, necessity is the mother of invention, so changes were made, trades got done, other players were released or sent to the minors. The face and look of the team ultimately became the team Beane and Brand wanted because it fit their design. That’s what the film’s spring training and first quarter of the season is about. The rest of the season was about the teams success based on Beane’s (and Brand’s) theories put into play on the field.
The film was written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. Bennett Miller handled the direction, but the bulk of the kudos must go to Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. You see the facts are straightforward – Beane knew with the utmost certainty that any scout’s intuition, any field manager’s game day lineups, and any GM’s information gathering was at best a crap-shoot. How did he know this?
Beane himself was a former Major League Baseball Player who attracted the attention of scouts from every team in the league. He was that good of a prospect. He had a choice of going to Stanford on a full athletic scholarship, or accepting a big bonus from the New York Mets to skip college and sign with them.
Beane passed on going to Stanford and took the Mets money. But his playing career was a series of lowlights rather than highlights. Beane knew, better than any executive or manager in the game, how much of a crap shoot it was because he had himself failed as a player despite the attention, the interest, and the expectations of baseball’s best scouts.
Brad Pitt brought his A-game to this film. Pitt as Beane had to bring the toughness, the resiliency, and the charisma to the owner, manager, and players of the Oakland franchise. We the movie fans already had taken to Pitt over the years – but this time we had to buy into him as Beane. Pitt in his interviews said that he wasn’t a baseball guy, so that his selection to play the role was a two level dilemma – he’d have to look and act like baseball man for the baseball side of the film, and he would have to achieve this from the actor’s side of the film. The net result is that Pitt, the actor, hit a home run.
Which is remarkable in and of itself. As he said, he wasn’t a baseball guy. But Pitt’s success in this role tells only half the story.
Billy Beane who is still the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, still hasn’t won that most meaningful last game of the season which would enable us to call him, and the A’s champions. It simply hasn’t happened to that team or to Beane yet.
But don’t be at all surprised if this film walks off with a few championship rings of its own. In baseball those gold rings are called World Championships. In the film world, you and I know them as The Oscars.
3 thoughts on “Moneyball”
It may not feel quite like the classic baseball movie others have achieved, but it’s certainly pleasant enough to be enjoyable even by non-sports fan, and features great performances from Hill and Pitt. Good review. Check out mine when you get a chance.
You guys are way ahead of the curve on getting these reviews done — I just realized this film was playing within 30 miles of my house. I’m dying to see it — what a cast, and what a production team. Many thanks for the heads up.
Yes, for sure it isn’t a classic sockeroo ending that has everyone smiling and or high-fiving and back-slapping as they leave the theater. But if it had it would have mimicked all those ‘classics’ that came before it. So I think that Moneyball does achieve the separation so it can’t be lumped in with those kinds of films.
Moneyball is a maverick and different kind of sports film – just as Beane’s (and Brand’s baseball theories) were maverick and went against the grain and a system that had been in place for so long.
Didion, go for it – this one is surely worth a short drive like that. Besides I am anxious to read your comments about Pitt, baseball films, and even the on-going ‘unfairness’ of the huge differential between the big-market and small market teams in the the game today.