Earlier this week I had the opportunity to catch a screening of the new movie Moneyball. If you are at SB Nation Bay Area reading this review you likely know the background of the movie in Michael Lewis' much-discussed and somewhat controversial book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.
For those unaware of the book, it chronicled how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane used new analytical tools to assess baseball players and put together a team on the A's limited budget. Beane had seen his A's lose key free agents like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. He did not have the money to replace them in a traditional manner so he had to figure out ways to replace their production in a creative way. Thus developed the Moneyball philosophy of searching for undervalued assets. Whether it be college ball players, on base percentage or any other number of categories, the goal was to find inefficiencies in the market and exploit them. Simply put, a sort of buy low/sell high philosophy.
Nine years after the events chronicled in Lewis' book, the much discussed and long awaited cinematic adaptation hits screens Friday September 23. Thanks to a combination of excellent performances by Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and others, and an excellent screen play by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, this movie manages to provide something for everybody.
I've had friends say they were unlikely to see the movie because they don't like sports movies generally, or they don't like baseball movies specifically. To them I've said this movie is a character piece that happens to use sports to help convey the message. Yes, there are numerous sports scenes in the movie. And having some knowledge of the A's situation or the backdrop of the book Moneyball can add something to the viewing experience. However, if you enjoy a movie that attempts to break down a complex character, this is a movie worth seeing.
Billy Beane really is a complex character fitting for a movie role. This comes in large part from his development from his days as a top prospect to his washing out as a big league player to finally entering the front office and eventually becoming GM of the A's. His failure as a baseball player was used in the movie to show both his drive and also the conflict it created for him. He was viewed as a can't miss prospect, but he missed. As A's GM he found himself looking at players others had discarded as unlikely to amount to anything.
Some of the more dramatic moments in the movie come when Beane is interacting with scouting director Grady Fuson. In the movie, Beane appears to almost have a distaste for Fuson and it would appear to have developed from own failures as a player. One of the few weaknesses to the movie was the struggle to fully cross the story of the Moneyball with Beane's struggles as a baseball prospect. You can see what they're trying to do but I don't think it was entirely effective. The point was definitely made about how scouting really is an imprecise science but it seemed to lag at times with that background.
A Movie For Everyone
Mainstream movies often try to position themselves as a movie for everybody in order to not block out any possible market. Moneyball is able to do that by developing the numerous relationships in play from the book and even further addressing other relationships that were not the focus of the book.
I'd argue this movie could appeal to anybody from an A's fan to a couple looking for a good date movie. A's fans will love it for the memories it brings back of the team's glory days at the start of the century. The movie mixes in clips from that team, which means you get to see some of the highlights of the 20-game winning streak with a lot of Bill King mixed in. That's reason enough right to watch it.
If you're just looking for an enjoyable movie, you get the character analysis of Billy Beane through the lens of baseball. The baseball scenes are pretty solid but it's actually quite easy to forget many of them as the movie focuses on Billy and his relationships with players, coaches, scouts and other GMs. The book was noted for the way it portrayed some kind of disdain for scouts and old school types. Naturally the movie added some additional dramatic tension, but it does provide a little more edge to flush out the characters involved.
From the date movie side of things, the movie provides a bit more context than the book did to Beane's relationship with his daughter Casey. While the movie focused on the Moneyball philosophy, it used Casey as a way to develop the Billy Beane character beyond just the dimension of baseball. They show a great relationship between the two no matter how good or bad things are going, whether Billy is about to be fired or on top of the world with the 20-game winning streak.
Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill Hit A Home Run
What really worked about this movie was the actors involved. As a side confession, I worked for the Oakland A's for five years and had a chance to interact with Billy Beane on a few occasions and also generally observe him around the office. Brad Pitt did a good job getting down some of his mannerisms and getting into the Billy Beane character. It was a little bit surreal for me given the fact that I have interacted with Beane. At times the movie felt like Billy Beane with some Brad Pitt mannerisms, but overall I enjoyed the character.
However, you could make the argument Jonah Hill had the better performance in what really was a bit more of an understated role. The character of Peter Brand was made up, but in reality was based in part on former A's assistant general manager Paul DePodesta. Apparently, Depodesta did not want to be involved and may or may not have asked the producers to change his characters name. True or not, we got the character of Peter Brand.
Hill is most known for comedic roles and less for more mature roles. In Moneyball he was able to use his comedic talents to some degree, but it was in a much more understated way than say Superbad. By not going over the top with the role, he played the perfect complement to Brad Pitt's Billy Beane character. Beane spends the entire movie as the biggest personality in the room and having a more boisterous Jonah Hill character would have failed miserably. Instead, Hill is able to get jokes in and sometimes even take control of a scene without mugging for the camera. I may have enjoyed his role as much or more than Pitt's because of that.
Beyond those two, the movie seemed to do a good job with the Oakland A's players. I'd argue Stephen Bishop playing David Justice and Chris Pratt playing Scott Hatteberg were two of the more well done roles. They also happened to have more lines than most of the rest of the team, but even still they didn't come across as actors playing ballplayers. Pratt in particular did a great job showing the fear that Scott Hatteberg may have felt when he was making the switch from catcher to first. Again, like the tension with the scouts it was likely embellished a bit.
But that's the way movies often are, particularly when based on true events. Reality can be so much better than fiction at times, but sometimes certain real events need a little something extra to make them motion picture worthy. While there are parts of Moneyball that are over the top, nothing is so much so that it reaches the level of completely ridiculous. It strikes a fine balance in maintaining some level of realism while also letting you escape a bit.
Overall, it's a movie that combines fun moments with enough dramatic tension to help develop the character of Billy Beane. It really is a non-sports, sports movie in the sense that it is more using sports to help develop some of the common themes we see in movies. Billy Beane faces this great tension internally with his own past, while also dealing with the tension of bringing these new ideas to the forefront of baseball. Even if you do not care a lick about baseball, there is enough going on in this movie for you to find something to like.