Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: "Moneyball"

NOTE: The core concept at the heart of Moneyball is a term that is used more than once in this review: “sabermetrics.” To avoid any confusion later, let it be stated up front that sabermetrics are, simply put, statistics that go beyond the standard statistics that you might see on the back of a baseball card. Sports nerds often call them “deep stats”, another term that may be used in this review, because they are much more complex and sometimes controversial than the traditional stats that have been used in baseball since the Civil War. While even the most apathetic baseball watcher knows the basic concept behind a batter’s average, sabermetrics (and the ideas behind Moneyball) measure things like OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) and various other stats that give a more complete view of what’s actually happening on a baseball diamond. Also, if this paragraph interested you in the least and you haven't read Moneyball, I recommend picking up a copy right now.

Confession: Once upon a time, I hated Brad Pitt. Hated him. I’d like to say there was some hardened reason behind my hatred but alas that was not the case. No, I hated Brad Pitt because every girl, ever, loved Brad Pitt and I felt it was my duty to hate the guy that every girl loved. (I also hated Leonardo DiCaprio if that makes you feel any better, Brad.) In my defense, I wasn’t alone in this hatred; the vast majority of guys in my middle school also hated Brad Pitt and we all gathered together, jocks and nerds alike, to wish ill will upon him while our would-be girlfriends (not really) all carried mini posters for Legends of the Fall in their binders. Somewhere along the line that feeling changed. I found myself begrudgingly admitting that Pitt “wasn’t awful” in various films and slowly coming to the realization (somewhere around Ocean’s Eleven) that this guy was legit. Again, it wasn’t just me. An entire generation of males woke up one day after having hated Brad Pitt for years and suddenly it was acceptable to admit the dude was a baller. These days, Pitt is one of my very favorite actors and someone who I trust implicitly to provide quality films and stellar performances. Moneyball is no exception.

In 2002, the Oakland Athletics rode an unprecedented winning streak (20 games in a row) to propel themselves into the Major League Baseball playoff picture and the national consciousness. A 20 game winning streak would be impressive enough but what made the A’s really special was that their roster was made up of a rag-tag group of has-been veterans and haven-yet-been youngsters. Their cumulative payroll was around $38 million dollars, the second lowest in all of baseball, and leagues away from that of the New York Yankees who spent over $120 million that year (a number that has only gone up, by the way). At the center of their unexpected success was Billy Beane (Pitt), the general manager who had embraced a system that other teams once scoffed at. Moneyball is the story of what it takes to win when the odds are stacked against you.

Authored by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Blind Side), the book Moneyball made a huge splash when it came out in 2004. Hardened baseball people hated this book in the exact same way I hated Pitt in middle school: they hated it because they didn’t understand it, because they didn’t want to admit that someone had something they didn’t. For me, that something was the bad-boy good looks and sheer charisma that Pitt had and I never would. For baseball people, that something was an advantage that Billy Beane had and they didn’t. The kicker is that while there wasn’t much I could have done about securing Pitt’s looks or his fame, baseball people had access to the tools used in Moneyball but shunned both the statistical evidence that sabermetrics provided and the proprietors of these newfangled ideas. It is important to understand this because these feelings are a big part of the dramatic tension which drives the film. Beane and his aides, particularly Peter Brand (in the film)/Paul DePodesta (in real life) who is played by Jonah Hill, were laughed at by their colleagues, questioned by the media, and cursed by the A’s fans. And that’s exactly why the Moneyball system worked: because no one else was doing it. If every other team bought into the principles of Moneyball, it wouldn’t matter how smart Beane and his team were, they wouldn’t be able to fill out a competent roster. But no one thought this would work. “You can’t win baseball games like this” was the general sentiment around the league and that’s an overriding theme within the film. Director Bennett Miller does an excellent job of bringing the criticism and stress, as well as the satisfaction that came afterward, from the time period into the tone of Moneyball and creates a compelling narrative through it.

Moneyball is a true human interest story wrapped up inside a sports movie. Baseball is only a conduit for the profiling of an interesting man with a radical idea. Beane is more than a little haunted by his past life in which he did not live up to his promise as a highly touted baseball prospect. At the same time, he is keenly aware of the pressure he is under to see his system through to success. Add in the stress of providing for a young daughter and you get the perfect recipe for someone who is willing to take chances. The most interesting thing about Beane (both in real life and as depicted in this film) is that he is not a genius who came up with the Moneyball system; these concepts come from others. But he gets an incredible amount of credit for embracing a philosophy that everyone else rejected. Pitt does a remarkable job of painting the appropriate portrait of the man, of blending the toll of stress with a healthy amount of bravado. It is a much more subtle performance than playing, say, a man who ages in reverse or a muscled-up figment of another man’s imagination, but it might be his best yet. He receives solid support from Hill (a much different role than we’re used to for him), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who isn’t give just a whole lot to do), and particularly Chris Pratt, who steals every scene he is in. But the cinematic vale of Moneyball rests on the shoulders of Pitt and he comes through with flair.

My complaints about Moneyball are few and pertain solely to the desire to see more of the behind-the-scenes strategy and the building of the Moneyball system. I am borderline obsessed with sabermetrics and their usage and I personally think that what Billy Beane did in Oakland (during his heyday) was nothing short of brilliant. I would have loved to see the development of the system laid out in greater detail but then again, that’s not interesting to 90 percent of the moviegoers on a Friday night. I also thought that the baseball action, while solid, was too drawn out at times. Too much time and melodrama is spent on a single, solitary baseball game that will stretch the A’s win streak to 20 games. It was an important game, sure, but as a viewer, it is much more difficult to get truly invested in the drama of a mid-season game than, say, the last game of the regular season which will decide if our heroes will make the playoffs or not (Major League). I’m all for historical accuracy but I felt it was an odd place to stop down for dramatic emphasis. Still, Moneyball is a good, quality film headlined by one especially strong performance that could very well be the highlight of an outstanding career.

Grade: A-

Sorry for hating on you Brad,


  1. love the mix of review/open letter to Brad Pitt! haha.

    Being very borderline documentary-ish, I thought that Moneyball was very well done too. Hard finding that balance between going into more of the behind the scenes and storytelling. I understand where you're coming from.

    Great review, and fun to read! Glad to see you rate it so highly. I did too. btw, I will be emailing you here shortly!

  2. 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.

  3. "Documentary-ish" is a good way to put it.

    And you're right Dan, not a classic baseball/sports movie. Much different than might be expected.


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