2011's Moneyball is a film about baseball like The Social Network is a film about Facebook, which is basically saying they're not what you expecting them to be. For starters, we don't spend that much time with the 2002 Oakland Athletics team. There are highlights of the teams early struggles, the amazing 20 game-winning streak, and losing a heartbreaking American League Divisional series to the Minnesota Twins, but other than that, we don't really get to know or warm up to these underdogs. The film also refuses to peg individual players into classic underdog stereotypes: the veteran who's looking for one more shot at baseball glory; the hotshot young gun with an arrogant attitude a mile long; the wise-cracking teammates who serve as comic relief to keep the film fast and light. The actors playing important figures in the A's run that year are hardly household names, or even stars you'd recognize, save for future star of The Lego Movie and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Chris Pratt, playing Oakland 1B Scott Hatteberg. Unless you recognize actors Casey Bond, Stephen Bishop and Royce Clayton as RP Chad Bradford, OF David Justice and SS Miguel Tejada (who would later play for the Padres in 2010) respectively, then congratulations, you're a bigger film nerd than I; and the smaller parts, while important to tell the story, don't really make an impression on the audience. This, I believe was deliberate, because like I said earlier, this isn't really a movie about baseball as we've seen it traditionally, much like The Social Network wasn't about how Mark Zuckerberg helped usher in the age of social networking. It was about who he stepped on, pissed off and screwed over to get to 500 million users, a $25 billion empire, and changing the way we communicate with each other.
Moneyball works similarly to The Social Network: the underdog element and how the team made their run into the postseason isn't important: What is important is how General Manager Billy Beane and his right-hand man Paul DePodesta went about radically putting together said team with a limited payroll and came out on top, regardless of how much turmoil it caused and how many toes Beane had to step on in order to get his way. Let me just say this right away: even though this is a movie about sabermetrics, I really don't know jack about it in terms of how it works and what OBP and WAR mean or how to read those stats, and for the purpose of the review, it's mostly irreverent to the review. However, if you do want to learn what sabermetrics is about, you should go read Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by finance journalist and author Michael Lewis on which this film is based (Or, you could seek out the resident stat geek Wonko on here, or have a lively discussion with him about how the model works sometime during the upcoming baseball season).
It's October 2001. Beane's (Brad Pitt) team has blown the last three games of the ALDS to the Yankees and are eliminated from the playoffs. Knowing that three of his star players - OF Johnny Damon, 1B Jason Giambi and RP/Closer Jason Isringhausen will be free agents now and knowing that there's little chance of being able to pay any one of them the money they're going to be asking for (we Padre fans know that situation all too well...), he's come to a realization: He's trying to manage a game that's rigged from the start. Beane needs a new approach, so he enlists the help of Yale graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who has just what he's looking for: instead of trying asses players based on runs scored and home runs, he's looking for how many times they can get on base. You're probably wondering to yourself, 'Who the hell is Peter Brand?' Well, he's DePodesta, but since he didn't want his name associated with the film, screenwriters Steve Zallian (who won an Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay for Schindler's List in 1994) and Aaron Sorkin (TV's The West Wing and Social Network scribe who also won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2011) created Brand as a composite character (basically, a character who is based on a real-life person or persons without using that individual's real name in a fictional or non-fictional piece of work) for the film. He pitches the new model to team's scouts, who aren't exactly thrilled by the idea of outright ignoring the traditional model of approaching players.
Things don't get any better once the season starts and Beane butts heads with the skipper Art Howe (played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) about player personnel, especially the battle between then first basemen Carlos Pena and Hatteberg and they get worse when the team struggle to win games, mostly in part by Howe's reluctance to play the personnel Beane implemented into the team, and the montages of angry fans and jaded former employees of the A's taking shots at how the GM's sabermetrics experiment is a grand failure on local sports talk shows. You know how this story ends: Oakland goes on a tear, winning a record-high 20 games, reaching the playoffs and losing to the Twins in the ALDS. When I unofficially started doing this project for Gaslamp Ball with my list of the 5 Best baseball Movies I've Seen (Thusfar), I had Moneyball as my no.3 pick. I stand by that, because, like the recently reviewed Bull Durham, this is both a great sports flick and a great movie. For the first time that I can recall, the filmmakers take us beyond the diamond and the dugout into the inner-workings of how a professional athletic organization works day-to-day. We see meetings about charting the course for the upcoming season, scouting reports on potential pickups both in the farm system and in free agency, and the all-important midseason deadline where the front office becomes a sort of revolving door for players as they make their entrances and exits. The script, co-written by Sorkin, is solid stuff, even though it isn't anywhere near the level of razor-blade sharpness of the script to The Social Network. But one of his best qualities as a writer remains intact: his ability to take a dramatic narrative, and deftly balance it with humor and wit. I love Pitt's dialogue where he asks each person in the scouting room the problem the A's face in putting together a team for the new season.
Speaking of Brad Pitt, as the A's GM, he gives one of my favorite performances of his to date. He's a no-nonsense, stick-to-your-guns ruler when he decides to adopt Brand and his sabermetics model and he doesn't have much patience when people within the clubhouse don't follow his plan. Watch him go at it when him and Hoffman's Art Howe when he cuts Pena for Hatteberg, showing the extent of his resolve. Privately, he is a man filled with demons of a past that's filled with wrong turns, specifically, his choice to ditch Stanford and go straight to the pros with the Mets. His career was riddled with injuries and simply not living up to his hype as a five-tool superstar of the future, and in quieter moments, you can see the pangs of regret written all over his face. As Peter Brand, Jonah Hill is a wonderful surprise. We know him for his comedic roles in Superbad and Get Him to the Greek and as an Apatow regular in Knocked Up and Funny People, but who knew he had the chops to take on a dramatic role like this? But the more I think about it, the more he just fit the role: he's an analytical numbers wonk who sees the value in players where most scouts miss because they're too busy trying to find the next big thing. He's a nerd, knows it and decides to use his brains to gain acceptance. He plays the character straight and Hill proves he has the talent to carry more dramatic fare.
Moneyball is short on baseball heroics, but with a sharp script, solid direction from Bennet Miller (2005's Capote) and excellent performances by Pitt, Hill and Hoffman, this numbers-crunching sports drama makes scouting reports, trades and the inner working of the clubhouse essential to winning a game and losing one.