For sports neophytes unaware of the finer points on how major league sports design their business models, Major League Baseball (MLB) runs its league according to the principles of social darwinism: every man/team for himself. Unlike the National Football League which operates as a legalized trust, sharing profits and coordinating with one another in order to make their overall product stronger, the MLB’s policy is that each team is its own wholly separate entity that must survive and suffice on its own merit and revenue.
The result is an income disparity among MLB teams that make Marxists rabidly salivate. There are the rich teams, such as the juggernaut that is the New York Yankees, a team that can simply purchase any missing piece in their collection to almost guarantee a perennial playoff contender status, and then there are the poor teams, such as the Oakland Athletics, who must scrap by with what little resources they have, hoping to spot enough diamond-in-the-rough rejects to jerry-rig a team together with the right amount character and gumption to stumble their way into the postseason.
It’s in this environment that we find our protagonist, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). The film starts at the end of the 2001 season, as the Oakland A’s lose an AL Divisional Round series to the New York Yankees, eliminating them from playoff contention. The success of the A’s 2001 season stemmed from the play of three players: Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen. Normally cultivating three young talents would be an encouraging sign for the team’s future prospects, but given the economic realities of the MLB, it meant one thing for the A’s: all three players would be leaving for greener pastures and bigger paydays. After only one year of enjoying success, this left Billy Beane with the daunting task of building another playoff caliber team basically from scratch and on a shoe-string budget.
Going to his supposed “wellspring” of knowledge, his scouting staff, Billy finds only tired traditional superstitious lines of thinking that are the sporting equivalent to Haitian voodoo, African water finders, or the Dark Age’s primitive “witch hunts”. Desperate to change the status quo, Billy travels to Cleveland looking for some sort of trade to shake things up, only to find all of his efforts blocked by a young, bulky inconspicuous man in a suit. Curious as to how someone so unassuming and inexperienced can carry so much clout inside a professional baseball team, Billy approaches the man.
The mysterious man is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Economics graduate from Yale and a disciple of Bill James, a statistician who came up with a radical idea to approach baseball known as sabermetrics. The basic premise of sabermetrics is simple: use rational, scientific methods to build a team of undervalued players (putting heavy emphasis on the “on base percentage” statistic) that nobody else wants. As common sense as it may sound, at the time it went against all the long established soothsayer notions of the collective hive mind of Major League Baseball, a highly controversial idea that was smugly dismissed in most circles of the baseball elite. Billy though, knowing he needs to do something different than the rest of the league in order to make the A’s successful, hires Brand and goes all in on this new fangled concept of sabermetrics.
As a former economics major who actually enjoyed the subject, all the talk of using statistics and mathematical formulas to build the perfect team made me a bit giddy (and reminiscent about my college days), but for those who don’t geek out over Adam Smith’s division of labor or scientifically engineering solutions to problems previously solved through intuition, don’t worry, Moneyball doesn’t require an Economics degree to enjoy. These ideas only set up the background to a very human story about a man trying to innovate and change the establishment around him, as he gambles everything in a fight to save his job.
And this is the heart of the story, a character study about a type-A personality thriving in a difficult situation. An American personality for America’s pastime. Coming into the film, I was most interested in seeing if writers Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War), along with director Bennet Miller (Capote), could fashion an absorbing story out of subject matter as seemingly uncinematic as sabermetrics and something as common place as the ups and downs in one particular season of a baseball franchise, and for the most part, they succeed.
Although I do love sports, I’ve never been able to wrap my arms around the sport played on a diamond-shaped field (to the point where I might even rank… soccer, ahead of it) because the pace of the game is just too damn slow. The fact then that Moneyball actually made me interested in baseball (and even got me to watch of little of the playoffs), proves it succeeded on some level.
As much as Moneyball intrigues though, the film doesn’t totally coalesce. Any particular scene is compelling enough, with well-written dialogue (the “trade deadline scene” is especially superbly written), but the film tends to plod along from scene to scene, never really settling into a rhythm. We get arbitrary peaks into Billy Beane’s family life and flashbacks into his failed professional baseball career that flesh out the character, but feel forced, giving Moneyball a patchwork quality.
This might be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. For those not locked into the daily fluctuations in the world of film production, Moneyball has had a long, tortutuous development process to the big screen. Originally the pet project of Steven Sodenbergh (who apparently wanted to shoot “documentary-style” with real baseball players such as Darryl Strawberry), after a disagreement with the producers on the direction the film was taking, Sodenbergh was dropped in favor of Bennet Miller and Aaron Sorkin was brought in to do work on the script.
Having this many different creative minds throwing their ingredients into the soup almost always mucks things up a bit, but as much as I loved Miller’s work in his debut feature (2005′s Capote) and as many things as he gets right, I think the film’s shortcomings land on the shoulders of director Bennet Miller. Whether it’s a lack of focus, manufacturing dramatic moments out of only slightly significant moments, or an almost total lack of score (the little music that is used is eerily reminiscent of Trent Reznor’s score for The Social Network), the film never finds its pace, which must be one of the primary concerns of any director. I’ve spent much more time than I should highlighting the negatives of a film that is as good as Moneyball, but I can’t help but feel that with more of a singular vision, the film really could have been something special.
The performances in the film are solid all around. Brad Pitt, playing the aggressive overachieving ex-jock, does an admirable job of making us sympathize with the protagonist without neutering him in saccharine sweetness. It’s not the best work in Pitt’s career, but another fine performance that bulks up his increasingly impressive filmography. Jonah Hill, most known for his comedic turns in Judd Apatow produced films, proves he has the acting chops to do more serious work, creating a believable “stat geek” who is reluctantly handed the keys to the kingdom. Veteran character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and relative film newbie Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) round out the keenly cast ensemble that avoid the typical sports movie cliches.
Moneyball takes a rather technical statistical subject, one of the more boring professional sports, and turns it into an entertaining narrative, which is no small feat. For those either not into sports/baseball, or Hollywood’s traditional translations of sports onto film, you need not fear, this is a captivating film that avoids all the pitfalls of this usually formulaic genre. Moneyball may not be a walk-off grand slam, but it’s at least a solid double, possibly rounding second for a triple (sorry, had to end it with some baseball lingo).