Movie review: Moneyball
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Sports Drama
Opens locally Friday, September 23rd, 2011
Run Time: 2 hours 13 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt
Written by Steven Zaillian (American Gangster, Gangs of New York and upcoming Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) & Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, TV's The West Wing), based on the book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" by Michael Lewis
Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote)
"Moneyball" should be seen by any fan of baseball...but I won't use cliches like "it's a home run" or anything. It does have an A-List cast, with 2 of the best writers in the business, featuring a director who's 1st and only feature film, 2005's "Capote," earned him a Best Director Academy Award nomination. Think of the cast and crew of "Moneyball" as the NY Yankees, an all-star assembly of the best talent money can buy.
Ironically, this brilliant team of writers, actors, and filmmakers assemble to tell a tale of an underdog General Manager (GM) of a Major League Baseball team, who can't quite afford to keep all-star players on his roster. Brad Pitt plays the real-life GM of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, who in 2002 took his poorly financed team to the playoffs, and on a record 20-game win streak, despite having lost all of his star players the year before due to payroll issues. He did this by instituting a ground-breaking statistical approach to the game, bunking years of tradition and experience on how players were selected and scouted by teams. He changed baseball at it's core, a game that is America's pasttime, and his impact and approach are now commonplace in the MLB.
Billy Beane was a former player, scouted and touted very highly as a future star. He of course, was a major failure as a player, and famously up and quit one day by walking into the front office and asking to become a scout. This led him to his GM position in Oakland, and with a $40 million dollar payroll, he faced an unfair disadvantage against other teams in the American League (The Yankees, for example, operated with a budget of over $125 million that same season.) More money means you can afford more star players, so how was Oakland to compete?
Beane hooks up and hires Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, in real-life portraying A's Assistant GM Paul DePodesta), a master of a statistical analysis approach called "sabermetrics." Long story short, it evaluates players not on the traditional "5 tools" of baseball (hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning skills, throwing ability, and fielding,) but on more statistical measures like a players worth to the team and how many runs they may provide in a season. These measure and others (like a player's "on-base percentage") are common nowadays, but at the time they were under-valued by scouts league-wide.
Despite being laughed at by other GM's, members of the media, and others in baseball, Beane puts all his faith in Brand and his system.
"Moneyball" tells the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, putting it in terms of it's historical importance as well as the impact it has had on the modern game. This change of course, came in 2002, after a hundred and thirty years of the "5 tools" philosophy.
Only a sports fan could grasp why it is so important when something "changes the game forever." For a non-baseball audience, it is difficult to know whether or not they will understand the impact.
And that's why "Moneyball" succeeds as a real triumph. It's a movie that requires a lot of explanation, and after all, it is a movie requiring a bit of patience. How can statistics be made interesting? The same way mathmatics were made interesting in movies like "A Beautiful Mind," where the interest is generated in the story-telling techniques and the performances. Brad Pitt is wonderful as Billy Beane, albeit not as foul-mouthed as the book would portray him (probably trying to keep the move accessible as a PG-13 film.) Jonah Hill, known more as a comedic actor, plays the unconfident schlub role perfectly, and it serves him well here as a statistician truly out of his league, yet with faith that his numbers don't lie. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is A's manager Art Howe, and is good if not given too much to do other than grumble and argue with Billy Beane. Many real-life players are portrayed as well, with most attention given to A's first-baseman Scott Hatteberg, portrayed by Chris Pratt.
All of this is intercut with some flashbacks as we see perhaps why Beane has such little faith in the scouting system of baseball...he himself being a highly recruited athlete. We also get a bit of his personal life mixed in, which may point to why, after his system is dubbed successful, he turns down an offer from the Boston Red Sox to stay in Oakland, despite having an opportunity to be the highest paid GM in history.
Some may scratch their head at this missed opportuniy, but for Beane, it isn't about the money, made clear in his approach as GM.
"Moneyball" is a baseball-lovers dream, a drama that is more about what happens off the field than on. Many of the baseball sequences in the film is actual footage, making "Moneyball" seem part-documentary. It's a by-the-numbers film about a by-the-numbers system that changed baseball forever. As a huge fan of the game, it's hard to know whether or not I loved this film because of this fact, or in spite of it.
Either way, "Moneyball" has made it on to my best of the year (at least so-far) list, and should be considered as one of the best screenplays of the year for making a story about stats a moving and emotional underdog journey. It's a riveting and inspiring David vs. Goliath story showing that sometimes you need to think outside of the batter's box in order to play with the big boys.
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