Moneyball is a real-life underdog movie that happens to be about baseball.
The story centers around Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his assistant GM, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). The two are charged with putting together a winning baseball team on a third of the budget that behemoths of the sport, such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, have to spend.
To succeed, they develop a new system for signing valuable players that have been deemed defective by other teams. Their new evaluation system develops a long line of critics, including their own manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Despite this, the A’s go on a 20 game winning streak, win the AL West Division, and head to the playoffs.
There will probably be two distinct groups of people that will see this movie. Those who are casual watchers, who are hearing the story of the 2002 Oakland As for the first time, and then the baseball purists, who not only know that the Oakland As were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but have also devoured Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name.
It seems logical at this point to write two reviews coming from the perspective of the would-be viewer.
1. The casual viewer’s review.
Lewis’ 2003 book transitions more naturally into a documentary than a drama, yet director Bennett Miller is able to make this into a compelling story.
The viewer is given glimpses of the theory and science behind Moneyball, enough so that he understands what is so revolutionary about what Beane is attempting to do, but not so much that the viewer is bored to death of statistics with funny sounding names by the end. The real life story had an underdog tale behind it, as Oakland struggled out of the gates and Beane’s job was in jeopardy, and it makes for great drama on the screen, as well.
While Pitt does an admirable job of conveying Beane’s complex character, Moneyball is really stolen by Hill’s portrayal of the real life Paul DePodesta. Hill, as in many of his other performances, is the source of laughs, but in a much more subtle and much less slap-stick kind of way. When asked by Beane if this is his first job in baseball, Brand responds, “It’s my first job… anywhere.”
When Brand speaks, you really do feel like you’re in on a secret, at the precipitous of a revolution in baseball. And, in reality, it was. As told in the epilogue, the 2004 Boston Red Sox used this model to win their first championship since the 1918 season. The movie struggles to find a logical place to end because in real life, there wasn’t a happy ending. But the movie leaves the viewer satisfied, and perhaps a little more knowledgeable about the nation’s favorite pastime.
2. The baseball aficionado’s review.
While it’s always difficult to transform something that should be a 30 for 30 on ESPN into a dramatic film, Moneyball leaves out key elements from the season.
To be sure, Scott Hatteberg had an entire chapter devoted to him in Lewis’ novel, and the movie pays tribute to that. The theatrical version also does a nice job of explaining the theory behind the theory of OPS without becoming overly technical to the casual viewer.
But for the movie to completely omit the biggest reason the As were so successful – the As “Big 3” of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito – is a hole that is as big as the perceived gap of Jason Giambi leaving for the Yankees.
After all, Zito went 23-5 that season and won the AL Cy Young Award. For all that is discussed about Hatteberg’s ability to get on base, something needed to be mentioned about Zito finishing third in both ERA (2.75) and strikeouts (182) in the league. Perhaps ERA and strikeouts weren’t the revolutionary new statistic behind Beane’s strategy, but his approach to drafting players was, and all three of those pitchers came up from the As farm system.
And, while Kerris Dorsey does an admirable job in playing Beane’s daughter, Casey, the character itself seemed to have no use other than to soften the edges around Beane. The dramatic effect was minimal, and her role was the typical stock character that we all too often see in sports films.
Perhaps that is the sports cynicist in me speaking, but, this is a sports movie, and I am a sports fan.