THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
It's kind of refreshing to see a sports movie that doesn't show much of its central sport. Very good films have been made about underdogs trying to improve, or teams hoping to win the big game. Still, I get a little bored with the usual formulas sometimes. Moneyball is set in and around the world of a professional baseball team, yet the action is all inside the clubhouse and the business offices, rather than on the field. When we do get a glimpse of the game being played, it is only to pave the way for some off-field machinations. I'm not sure I've ever seen a sports movie quite like this, and that's a major compliment.
Based on Michael Lewis' non-fiction best seller, Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), an underachieving ball player who went on to become the general manager of the Oakland A's. As the team enters its 2001 season, they are facing the prospect of a serious losing streak. With a much smaller budget than many MLB teams, they cannot afford to pay the salaries demanded by star players. Their best players – including Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon - are routinely pilfered by other teams. The situation is grim. While attempting to negotiate a trade, Beane encounters Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young man who graduated from Yale with an economics degree. Brand doesn't really understand baseball, but he definitely understands numbers. He has a theory that economic principles can be applied to the sport in an advantageous way. Beane hires him immediately.
Put simply, Brand hypothesizes that the A's can put together a winning team by bringing on undervalued players. Looking solely at their statistics, he asserts that they can exploit very specific skills (i.e. getting on base a certain percentage of the time) and, consequently, compensate for a lack of heavy hitters on the team. Beane believes in the theory. The team's owner, its manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and its talent scouts adamantly do not. This leads to a series of clashes – and eventually a team that's starting to win.
Moneyball is about baseball in the same way that The Social Network was about Facebook. In other words, both use their central subject as a springboard to explore bigger issues. Just as you could enjoy The Social Network without ever having used Facebook, you can enjoy Moneyball even if you have zero interest in baseball (and, for the record, I do have zero interest in it). The overriding theme here is the way the establishment resists new ideas. Even though the A's are a losing team, the behind-the-scenes staff is reluctant to try anything untested. They'd rather lose in an old, familiar way than win in a new, unfamiliar one. The screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin focuses on this clash, giving us long sequences in which Beane attempts to swing others around to his point of view, with varying degrees of success. This is what makes the film so engrossing for baseball fans and non-fans alike. Given that Major League Baseball is most definitely a big business, many of the characters are reluctant to change anything. Paranoia sets in and groupthink takes over, blocking out the possibility of fresh ideas entering. Beane and Brand continually fight to break through that wall. Moneyball just happens to be about baseball, but it could be about anything, because the self-protective attitude of the establishment permeates so many areas of life.
Brad Pitt is a perfect choice for the role of Billy Beane. The actor has the kind of quiet intensity that makes you believe he would never back down from a moral fight. Some of the best moments find him wheeling and dealing – rapidly trading players, pitting (no pun intended) other team managers against each other – in order to make sure he's steadfastly following Brand's formula. Pitt brings humanity to a character that would have been easy to play stereotypically. Jonah Hill is stellar too, taking a role markedly different from anything he's done before. What I like best about his performance is that he plays Peter Brand as a guy who has faith in numbers. He doesn't romanticize baseball so much as he romanticizes the analysis of statistics.
There's another level to Moneyball, one firmly connected to the primary theme of the movie. No matter what happens, the players themselves are always the benefactors/victims of decisions made in the home office. Many people view baseball through an idealistic prism. They fondly remember playing Little League, or going to a ball game with their dad. They think the game has a purity that it simply does not. The truth is that lots of money is at stake in Major League Baseball. Players don't stay on teams because they are well-liked; they stay on because they're fulfilling a function. Even when Beane gets his way (which is not all the time), players are sometimes sacrificed. They get traded, or shipped back to the farm teams. Their hard work and dedication is secondary to the need to win, to keep the fans happy, to keep the cash rolling in. I found it impressive that the film would so boldly make that point.
Moneyball is certainly going to appeal to baseball fans. I hope those not so enamored with the sport will give it a shot as well. The depiction of old ideas versus new ones is gripping. In real life, Billy Beane helped to change the very nature of baseball. The ideas he championed made a profound impact on the sport. Moneyball celebrates those who truly think outside the box, while also dealing honestly with the reality that, in business and in sports, the only thing that matters is success. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) has made a fascinating, challenging, and supremely entertaining film.
( 1/2 out of four)
Moneyball is rated PG-13 for some strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.