A quote from the great baseball legend Mickey Mantle is included at the beginning of “Moneyball” that reads, “It is unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.” This quote can easily apply to the film’s main character Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a former ball player who lost his skill and self-assurance when the moment came for him to transition into the Major leagues.
Now divorced, though still keeping in touch with his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), this man presides as the general manager for a bottom tier Major League baseball team from Oakland, California known as the Athletics (or the A’s for short). The team has one of the smallest payrolls and most conservative budgets of any professional sports team. As Beane himself bluntly describes it, “there are rich teams, then poor teams, then 50 feet of crap, then us.” Following a lousy playing season in 2001 and losing three of their star players to higher-paying teams, the A’s chances of recovering credibility seem entirely hopeless.
Like I mentioned before, money spending is a tightly controlled ship in the eyes of all the businessmen behind the scenes, including Beane himself. With no hopes of replacing the three empty spots with big names or even moderately valued players, things ain’t looking as bright as they could (not that it was all that promising to start with). However, a momentous visit to the Cleveland Indians introduces Beane to an Economics major from Yale named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Though this kid’s number-crunching, glasses sporting image doesn’t immediately register as ‘sports intellectual,’ he has developed an unconventional but brilliant strategy that may benefit Beane in preparing a full-line up for next season.
The gameplan is not to hone in on the imperfections that other scouts are concerned about: players’ personal lives, addictions, physical irregularities, etc. Instead Brand turns Beane’s attention to simple statistics, namely the players’ on-base percentages. With this tactic in mind, Beane makes the most of the small budget he is working with and hires three undervalued Major Leaguers onto the team, much to the uncertainty and flat-out opposition of scouts and specialists, including the traditionalist manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
I think at one point, a line is uttered that Beane’s risky team arrangement is like “buying a ticket on the Titanic.” Truth is, Beane is extremely driven by his hatred for not winning that he is willing to see this plan through to the end.
Before I go any further, I will tell you something very strange about me. Generally, I am not excited when I hear about sports-related films that are about to come out, mostly because I myself am so ignorant and indifferent toward sports altogether. I haven’t the faintest knowledge of the rules, regulations, statistics, records, players, teams, etc. of any sport that some would go as far as to call it un-American (especially since I live in Georgia, where most people I know love them some football).
And sure, most sports movies are more obsessed with their characters than they are by the competitive action. I understand that. Heck, most films I will end up liking once I give them a chance (case and point, “Warrior” from just a few weeks ago). It’s just that none of them capture my eye from the trailer alone. “Moneyball” was no exception.
But sure enough, the film is surely not your average feel-good baseball movie. While baseball is indeed the dominant subject, “Moneyball” concentrates even more on facts and figures, applied data used for business strategies, the savvy language of the head honchos in charge and the overall business approach to the game. The baseball stars are not cast in lead roles and the stuff that takes place on the field borders on being an afterthought most of the time, although there are some specific nods directly to the fans that love the game. Admittedly, even I was on-edge when it came down to whether or not the A’s would close out the 2002 season with a record-breaking winning streak.
While I was watching, something about the film’s placement of the human drama and intellectual discipline in the center reminded me of a little film from last year called “The Social Network.” As if I hadn’t made it perfectly clear on a number of occasions (like this one), I have an undying love for “The Social Network.” Most of that love stems from the fact that while it is essentially about the conception of Facebook, you almost forget about Facebook because you get wrapped up with everything else, from the complex characters to the underlying themes of betrayal and manipulation.
At first I couldn’t tell what it was, but some of those aspects carry over into this film. Imagine my surprise when I stayed through the end credits and noticed that Aaron Sorkin, the penman for “The Social Network,” was listed as co-writer on this project.
And particularly in the writing department, “Moneyball” succeeds. Sorkin’s inspired script (also written by Steven Zaillian) is written intuitively to where even me, the guy who knows zero about baseball, can instantly understand the geeky facets in sports culture being discussed, while at the same time not dumbing it down; the screenplay is as dense and tight as the previously mentioned “The Social Network,” and is infused with heart and wit to boot. Pitt’s performance as Billy Beane is both endearing and puzzling, while Hill holds his own in his first big dramatic outing. Add in some expert direction courtesy of “Capote” director Bennett Miller and you have a homerun at your fingertips.