“Now we’re gutted—organ donors for the rich”
Did Billy Beane change the game of baseball? If the epilogue to Moneyball is to be believed, he did—to a point. General Manager of a team that was one win away from a World Series birth and watching his star trio walk for giant paydays, anyone would be dejected and unsure how to move forward. The Oakland A’s owner had no money to spend, his scouts were pushing sixty years old and cared more about whether their ballplayers had pretty faces than if they could get on base, and he was simply fed up with the game. Baseball treated its players as commodities to be bought and sold. It did it to him as a budding talent years ago and hasn’t stopped despite his implosion. And with teams like the Yankees owning 110 million-plus dollar budgets, how could a shoestring bunch costing 40 million even try to compete?
Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Lewis, Moneyball is an unlikely feel good tale of beating the odds—or more aptly, using them. When it looked impossible, Beane (Brad Pitt) saw Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen leaving Oakland as an opportunity. Knowing something in the system had to change, the solution eluded him until a chance discovery at a meeting with the Cleveland Indians about prospective trades. Standing as a wallflower against the wall, whispering in the ear of a trusted official who in turn whispered into Mark Shapiro’s (Reed Diamond), an economics grad from Yale named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) had the answer. A characterization of Paul DePodesta—who requested the name change once casting switched from Demetri Martin to Hill—this is the man with the formulas, using a statistical rubric created years earlier to unearth the hidden gems no other team cared about.
Beane falls for the science, realizes he has no better options, and steals Brand away to help field a team would be an easy target for laughter. The experiment leads to the Head Scout’s departure, shows Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to be an opportunistic heel, and risks the jobs of everyone who thought it worthwhile to stick to the plan. Growing pains are felt, assumed has-beens are given another chance to shine, and baseball is found to be more than flashy stars hitting homeruns and stealing bases. The premise is simple—you can’t win without getting on base—but why shouldn’t it be that easy? The real challenge is how to get those around you to buy into the notion. Internal sabotage is real a problem and ending May as the worst team in the MLB could mean walking papers before results have an opportunity to surface. It’s on Beane to believe despite outside interference—what great sports film doesn’t have that theme?
Admittedly, I’ve never been one for baseball. So my enjoyment of this film falls solely onto the story behind the game itself. Until Steven Soderbergh was attached to direct, I hadn’t heard the tale, never knew the A’s won 20 games in a row, and could have cared less about any of it. The movie he wanted to make would have been intriguing, weaving interviews throughout as it brought the book’s statistical backdrop to life, but the studio knew it wouldn’t sell to the audience it wanted. However, that doesn’t mean Bennett Miller was a lesser man for the job. In fact, for the melodrama the studio wanted, he was quite possibly the best choice. Paralleling its lead character’s unique position as a General Manager who played the game, Miller is an actor turned director who knows how to get performances from his cast. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin found culled together a narrative from inside the book, but the director is who ran with it.
One could justifiably say Moneyball is Brad Pitt’s film, but to me it’s nothing without Miller. Pitt is fantastic in an understated role, too even-keeled a character to allow for the dramatics necessary to make it more than a solid performance. It lacks Hoffman’s gravitas in Miller’s last film, Capote, as well as Pitt’s own strong work in this year’s Tree of Life. Even so, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on end of year lists alongside his co-star Hill, a guy who has never been better. Using the deer-in-the-headlights stare of his creepy man-child from Cyrus, he reins in the overwhelming awkwardness to become an unsure innocent thrown into a dream job he never imagined. We’re given his usual comedic jabs and straight-faced humor, but also a serious capacity for drama I’m glad to see. Hopefully this will open the door for more disparate work from the young star as he too was plucked from typecast doldrums to become a key piece in a winning film.
But I digress. I said it’s Miller’s film and the acting’s success can most likely be attributed to his ability to find the magic takes. Straight down the line from Chris Pratt’s scared and excited Scott Hatteberg getting another shot to Stephen Bishop’s David Justice realizing how leadership can earn his paycheck as much as the runs he used to score to an odd cameo by Spike Jonze as the step-father to Pitt’s daughter, the actors are comfortable in front of the camera and buy into the film’s ambitious attempt to overcome its rather conventional structure. The truth is, the script itself isn’t anything unique once you remove the fascinating and genius plans for baseball it posits. No, the performances and visuals make it greater. Whether the relaxed comedy of Beane and Brand’s first meeting with Oakland scouts or the close-up baseball action that’s highly stylized and sometimes isolated in darkness outside the stadium setting or the skewed compositions set to a moving score, Miller feels the quiet tone and is exacting in its creation.
Moneyball isn’t just about an underdog winning or losing, but instead a few guys who chose to stop following the status quo and attempt something bigger. Whether it worked or not is in the eye of the beholder, but one cannot refute the fact that the 2002 Oakland A’s were noticed. The film lays it all on the line by showing an in-depth account of what happened behind closed doors and—fact or fiction—it’s an entertaining saga worth a look. A subplot concerning Beane’s ex-wife (Robin Wright) and daughter (Kerris Dorsey) does little to warrant its inclusion besides give us a catchy little tune, but the stuff on the field and in the locker rooms remains relevant throughout. The filmmakers don’t pull punches and despite a semi-manipulative ending, there’s a lot to enjoy for fans of baseball and of intriguing true stories alike.