' ' Cinema Romantico: Moneyball

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


I devoutly believe in The Loch Ness monster. My father does not. Whenever a new piece of evidence potentially suggesting the existence of Nessie surfaces I immediately forward it to him which is followed by him almost instantly dismissing its credibility. In baseball terms you might say my dad is Bill James and I am W.P. Kinsella. It's not unlike how the long prevailing notion that New York Yankees future Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter hits better in clutch situations can statistically be proven false but, nonetheless, will forever be romantically upheld. "Moneyball", based on the groundbreaking baseball book by Michael Lewis, is less about the Oakland Athletics vs. Whomever or Small Market Team vs. Big Money Team or even Statistics vs. Intuition as it is about the most important debate of all...Science vs. Romance.

In 2001, after suffering defeat in the major league baseball playoffs to the evil machine that is the Yankees and consequently losing his three best players to free agency, Oakland general manager Billy Beane, played by an off kilter and aw-shucks Brad Pitt, wielding a smile that alternates between disbelieving and disarming, meaning well and spitting venom, turns to a then unheard of strategy of employing computer and statistical analysis to pick players to formulate not only a "better" team but a team that costs much, much less. He enlists the aid of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a  25 year old whiz kid out of Yale with a degree in economics and no real world baseball experience, who posits the theory that a baseball team, simply put, is trying to win and in order to win requires, above all else, runs and, thus, should focus on enlisting players that score runs as opposed to focusing on players who possess some sort of theoretical "look". (There is an uproarious sequence near the beginning where Beane is meeting with his supposed brain trust and this older guy compliments a particular player's jaw. His jaw!)

Beane and Brand alienate nearly everyone within the organization. They target Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) to play first base despite the minor caveat that he has never played first base in his life. Why? "He gets on base." They target the washed up ex-All Star David Justice. Why? "He gets on base." They target the hard-partying brother of their former star player Jason Giambi. Why? "He gets on base." Except at first none of them really get on base. The team opens the season dismally and the movie, directed by Bennett Miller, and written by two heavyweights, Steve Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin, inserts radio show talking heads sounding off as if a world killing asteroid is making a beeline for earth and Beane was the asteroid's proprietor, which brilliantly underscores how sports radio has become such a powerful nuisance in recent years.

Meanwhile the team's manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in a deft performance) skulks around the edges, pudgy, tired, forced night after night after night to play what appears to be a losing hand, emblematic of how the managers who are so often at the mercy of the fans are just as much at the mercy of their general managers, and in a painfully realistic scene admits to Beane in the midst of the losing streak that he is merely managing in such a way to save face to make sure he can get another job at the end of the season. Yeesh.

Ah, but not so fast, Art Howe! Is this not a "sports movie"?! Will the Oakland A's not rise up and make a run?! You bet they will! And they do! Beane and Brand go behind Howe's back, trade away who appears to be their best player to make their chosen players get on the field and begin coaching up the scrappy charges on their own. Things change. The Athletics make an improbable run up the standings column and suddenly find themselves face to face with destiny, namely a chance to earn a major league record 20 wins in a row.

I have not read the book and have no idea how much of this is true to the page and its overall point, but what the film does best, over and over, in scene after scene, is display the grudge match between Science & Romance, each one throwing counter-punches and, maybe just as much, the grudge match between the cliches of conventional sports movies. Oh, rest assured, there are scenes of Beane tossing chairs in the wake of losses and sitting solemnly in empty stadiums and, heck, there's even a climactic home run in The Big Game. But consider, for instance, the scene where upon being pestered by Beane for not being a (groan) Team Player, David Justice decides to council the young Scott Hatteberg. (I also loved how this scene was centered around Hatteberg drinking coffee and Justice eating cereal.) "What frightens you most?" Justice asks his teammate. Ah, so this is "brotherly" talk time, a poignant moment of a young player coming of age. "A ball being hit in my general direction," says Hatteberg. Justice thinks he's joking. He's not, he's really, really not. Hatteberg walks away. "Good luck with that!" Justice shouts, confused. The scene is set up as a scene we've seen in countless sports movies and then twists it. I dig that, and "Moneyball" does it often.

Many hardcore baseball fans seem, well, if not angered at least mildly troubled by the fact the film chooses to gloss over a few of the A's most critical players in their '02 season, including three All Star pitchers who were part of the team pre-Moneyball scheme, but I think that's the correct filmmaking decision because the film is less about the story of the A's and more about both the story of Beane and an exploration of how "it's hard not to be romantic about baseball."

The film ends with the Boston Red Sox offering Beane a whole lotta money to be their general manager. Whether or not he does I will leave to you to discover but we all know the Red Sox eventually won the World Series and as the epilogue notes they did so by implementing Beane's methods. Moneyball helped break the Curse of the Bambino. Think about that sentence for awhile.


Jacob said...

I'm at work and about to leave for a meeting so I only quickly ready the first paragraph. I just want to say, for the record, if you ask all those people who say that Jeter's clutch hitting ability is a fabrication of Yankee fans - if you ask those people who they would want to bat for their team in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs in a World Series game - if they can have any player in baseball they all say: Number 2, Derek Jeter.

And if they don't, they are just idiots.

Anonymous said...

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.

Nick Prigge said...

Jacob: But according to CROW (Clutch Rating Over Wins) Jeter's average in 9th inning clutch situations lags in comparison to 46% of major league players! After all, it's NOT just a game. Wait, what? It IS just a game? I'm so confused.

dtmmr: I agree, it's definitely not a baseball film in that classic sense, but like you say that's probably what makes it more appealing to everyone.

Andy Buckle said...

I know very little (nothing!) about baseball, but I do enjoy a good sporting story. Been hearing some great things about this film, and if there are some errors in details about the team, I'll likely miss them. Great review!

Castor said...

I just came back from seeing this and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I guess I was expecting more out of it and it merely was a solidly-made film than anything else. For instance, while Brad Pitt's performance was perfectly competent, I wasn't blown away by it. I would probably rate it a "B".

Nick Prigge said...

Andy: It's funny, for as specific as it is about baseball with its concept, it really does come off feeling much more universal. I definitely think non-baseball people can enjoy it. I mean, I'm not really that much of a baseball person.

Castor: I can't really disagree. I will say I was hesitant about seeing it because I'm not a baseball guy and so I wound up mildly surprised and that added to my enthusiasm. I thought Brad Pitt did a few interesting little quirky things with the role but, on the whole, it's not really a show-stopper.