I still have the flu. This means that I find myself sleeping a lot during the day, and when I’m not sleeping I’m often camped out in the bathroom. This also means that I don’t really have the opportunity to go hunting for films to watch in the depths of the Netflix and Lovefilm libraries, so I just stick to what might already be in the house. Here’s what I found in the pile next to the television. If it’s in your pile, you should watch it too. It really is quite good.
It really is quite good.
Billy Beane has a problem. He is General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team – one of the poorest teams in the Major League – and he has just lost his three biggest players to free agency. Needing to replace them, but without the money to buy the new blood he would want, he instead hires Peter Brand, a statistician working for the Cleveland Indians. Brand is a proponent of sabermetrics, a system of analysis that finds players who are good at one aspect of the game but have been devalued by other teams due to deficiencies elsewhere. Using this new system, Billy Beane hopes to put together a winning team in time for the start of the new season. Lots of thrown furniture ensues.
Everything I know about baseball, I learned from the movies. The real-life game always seemed to take the American fascination with statistics and magnify that to the nth degree. Frankly all those acronyms just kinda scared me off. All the good baseball movies managed to get past that by just ignoring it outright, making the stories simple win/loss questions instead, and focussing on the players personal lives and issues. Moneyball takes that standard baseball movie rulebook and rips it up. The story is built on the stats, and the team manager and his staff. Hell, only about three players even get a line in more than one scene. I was worried that Moneyball would be too dense, too American*. But then I found out Aaron Sorkin had written the script, and I started to relax a little.
Looking at the credits, this flick was really destined to be classy number. Produced by Scott Rudin, written by Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, cinematography by Wally Pfister… Between them, these men are behind some of the best and most respected films of the last decade. And then you have the cast: Brad Pitt as Beane, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the A’s coach Art Howe, and Jonah Hill shelving his sweary comedy persona to show off his dramatic chops as Beane’s assistant GM Peter Brand. By the time this movie was released, all my doubts had been essentially washed away, but I still managed to be surprised by the genuinely affecting story that has been crafted here.
The film examines one year in the life of the Oakland A’s, from the post-season of October 2001 through to the end of the 2002 season. In that time Billy Beane goes from almost begging the A’s owner for a bit more cash to being offered a position as the highest-paid GM ever in sports history. By the way, this is based on a true story so – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – screw you if you want a spoiler warning. While based on real people and crafted around real events, Moneyball is still a work of fiction. The character of Peter Brand, for example, isn’t a real person; he is an amalgam of Beane’s then-assistant GM Paul DePodesta and others. The truth will never measure up against its cinematic counterpart, and vice versa, so there is no point trying to compare the two for relative merit. As a story in its own right, Moneyball is a fantastic film, deserving of all the accolades it has received.
Sorkin and Zaillian’s Oscar-nominated script (actually Sorkin’s shooting script, working from an earlier draft by Zaillian) is often really funny, packed with the West Wing man’s standard wit. One stand-out sequence for Sorkin’s work as well as that of the two lead actors is when Beane is on the phone trying to rig multiple trades with several teams in order to get one specific player for himself, and the aftermath where he and Brand break the news to the affected players and Art Howe. This is the kind of thing that you don’t get to see very often – if ever – and it’s both hilarious and quite touching. Wally Pfister took a break from Gotham City to shoot Moneyball, and the film looks as gorgeous as you would expect. The way he uses the light and shifts focus within the shots harks back to the more visually interesting style of the sixties and seventies, when the camera was a part of actually telling the story instead of just watching the actors do their thing. Mychael Danna’s score reminded me quite a lot of the music in Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights, especially in the game scenes; seemingly simplistic but very evocative at the same time. Just like with every other aspect of the film, it was never showing off.
If you know anything about this film, it is probably how good Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s performances are. Well everything you have heard is true: these two make a great double-act. The level of the supporting cast is excellent too, in particular Philip Seymour Hoffman and Chris Pratt. As Hoffman himself admits in one of the Blu-Ray extras, the film version of Art Howe is little more than a cypher – just someone to be a point of conflict with Beane’s new philosophy. With not much screen time and even less dialogue however, Hoffman manages to craft an actual person that you can sympathise and empathise with. Pratt plays Scott Hatteberg, a former catcher who Beane recruits as his new first baseman. He has never played that position before and Pratt really shows that breakdown in confidence and the vulnerability that comes with it. Despite what I said about the last film I saw him in, the man really can act.
While it may seem like a film about baseball, Moneyball is actually a film about one man’s determination to change the way the game is played by fighting against the status quo of “big money equals success”. The game could be anything; in this case it just happens to be hitting a round ball with a round bat.
*Just to be clear, I don’t mean that disparagingly, just that it might not have translated outside of the baseball world.
I really enjoyed the trade deadline scene as well. A close friend of mine actually went to the epic 20th win game. Baseball may not be your thing, but apparently the book is even better than the film with baseball stats and stories about Beane’s work in getting the team together. Loved this movie; great review.
It’s not just baseball, I’m not really a big sports fan in general. My brother has read the book and really liked it. Here’s what he had to say about it:
This goes on my “Would have loved it if I hadn’t already read the book” list.
I couldn’t figure out how you could get a movie narrative out of the book, considering there’s no sports movie happy ending, it reads in part like a stats textbook and it gives almost equal focus to Bill James, author of the Baseball Abstract, the father of sabermetrics and inspiration to Beane, although there is no interaction between the two.
So how did they do it? The same way the makers of The Blind Side did. Also by Michael Lewis, it too had a split narrative. The screenwriters focused on the Michael Oher story and jettisoned the history of the left tackle position and it’s growing importance in the NFL, which shared alternate chapters in the book with the future Raven’s lineman. The only remnant of this in the film is the opening game footage of Lawrence Taylor destroying Joe Theissman and Sandra’s voiceover.
So Zaillian and later Sorkin cut out the majority of Beane’s backstory and where he got his devotion to sabermetrics from. And it works. They don’t mention some other important details, like the fact that the A’s had arguably the best starting rotation in baseball for a few years, responsible perhaps for more wins than the new fangled theories on player evaluation.
I still enjoyed it, just thought it could have gone deeper into the subject. And then probably 18 people would have seen it.
(He can really go on sometimes)
I call shenanigans on the 5 words this time. Might I suggest “Boring if you hate baseball”, “Baseball. Brad Pitt. Nothing else”, “Jonah Hill plays with statistics”, “Fat old guys discuss baseball”, “I hope you like dialog”…No wonder you do this. It’s fun thinking these up, and hard to stop.
It is fun isn’t it? You got some good ones there. I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark here and say that you’re not a big baseball fan…
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 Ryan.
Thanks Dan. Nothing will ever top the first Major League as far as classic baseball movies are concerned, although Ron Shelton has come close a few times.
I was pleasantly surprised by this one, was not expecting much but I really enjoyed it.
You and me both. With the names involved, I was fairly sure it wouldn’t suck, but even so I was pleasantly surprised.