Movie Review: Moneyball is right on the money.
Sports movies are always such a risk. Most try to tug too hard at the heartstrings by exaggerating the drama of the game. Others apply slow motion montages and a bombastic score to create a sense of “epic history” to an athletic event. There are countless examples of sports movies going too far to make a point.
Field of Dreams? Smug, sentimental…and it tried to whitewash the more nefarious details of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s tainted legacy. Invictus? It tried to use rugby (and the World Cup match against New Zealand) as a means of explaining the difficult healing process that took place in South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s early days as President. I could go on…but you get the picture.
The few sports movies I’ve truly enjoyed were based more on real and flawed individuals who managed to achieve greatness despite their own weaknesses and the inequities that exist throughout the sporting world. ‘Miracle’ remains a personal favorite (with Kurt Russell nailing Herb Brooks’ attitude and approach). And, in like manner, I found myself loving Moneyball.
But funny enough, Moneyball isn’t really a sports movie, at all. A better comparison would probably be ‘The Social Network’; this is a film about a maverick who turns conventional business thinking on its head despite tremendous adversity (both from the league as well as his own team). At its heart, this is a movie about business….a film about approach – both in life and economics. And how that approach shook the foundations of an aged (and arrogant) league utterly convinced of its own scouting acumen and inflated sense of self-importance.
‘Moneyball’ is about Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane. Beane, a high school phenom who never panned out in the majors, worked his way up from scout to GM…but struggled with a team that boasts one of the lowest payrolls in all of Major League Baseball. Yes, the stink of Steinbrenner hangs over this film like a dark cloud. The movie even (and not so subtly) points out that the A’s only have about $38 million per year to spend on all salaries and operations while the Yankees spend in excess of $120 million. And believe me, if you’re a baseball fan (and I’m an admitted baseball addict), that spending gap is a universe in terms of luring top-tier free agents and being able to foster a healthy, productive farm system. But Billy Beane became convinced that you shouldn’t have to spend the GDP of an African nation to win a pennant; and ultimately, he’s been vindicated (albeit only by other teams like the Devil Rays).
As Billy Beane, Brad Pitt turns in a subdued, low-key and amazing performance. I tend to find Brad Pitt’s roles often scream “look at me! look at me!” (which I find distracting) but this movie’s the anti-Pitt. Everything “Pitty” about his prior performances is set aside in lieu of a more quiet, introspective character. I can’t compliment him enough for stepping outside of himself and leaving his ego behind. This is the kind of role that begs for honest Oscar attention. Jonah Hill is less memorable as the fresh-out-of-Yale AGM of the A’s (quickly poached from the Cleveland Indians) who worships at the feet of sports theorist Bill James. For those of you who aren’t uber-fans of the green diamond, Bill James was a [layman] lifetime aficionado of baseball who wrote a book on the math of baseball and how conventional scouting was flawed (teams looking at batting average instead of on-base percentage and slugging percentage). Jonah Hill’s character Peter Brand (based loosely on Paul DePodesta) challenges Billy Beane’s thinking and quickly finds himself as the newly crowned AGM of a sub-par franchise.
And then the fireworks begin.
The A’s pro scouts are beyond incredulous. The team’s manager Art Howe (gruffly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) thinks Billy’s lost his mind and is dangerously close to infringing on game-time decisions. And the owner is refusing to spend an additional dime. All of this would normally end the season of any team…but not one that Billy Beane presides over. He doesn’t just embrace the new thinking….he starts trading out key players to enforce it. And then, as history recalls, the A’s started winning. And winning. And before the dust settled, they’d amassed 20 straight wins and a playoff spot. Of course, the big caveat to this tale is the A’s haven’t won the world series using their ragtag approach to scouting…but they have made the playoffs (and, as is pointed out, spent less for a win than any other team until the 2009 Tampa Bay Devil Rays).
A big credit to director Bennett Miller is he keeps the drama off-field for most of the film. The movie’s terrifically funny at times….and melancholy at others; but the drama is always kept in the wood-paneled and cinder-blocked offices of major league ballparks. Again, this is a movie about business – not about sports. And Pitt’s chemistry with actress Kerris Dorsey (who plays his daughter) is about as real and perfect as Hollywood can achieve. Nothing about it feels forced or artificial.
While some facts are changed for the sake of the plot (like Jeremy Giambi being picked up to replace his brother when he was actually already a member of the team), the movie stays close enough to the true story to feel honest and vivid.
Moneyball is a movie for lovers of baseball, business or just top-notch film. This is easily a major contender for the Oscars next year and my favorite movie of 2011 to date.