Directed by Bennett Miller
Sony Pictures, 133 mins. PG-13
* * * *
It shouldn’t be rare but it is: a film about sports in which the activity in question actually resembles the way real athletes play it. Moneyball is one of the best baseball movies of recent memory; it adds to its cachet by being a five-tools film: good acting, solid direction, an engaging story, a crisp script, and a surprising amount of tension for a story whose ending we already know.
Five tools is what Moneyball’s principal, Billy Beane, was supposed to possess when the New York Mets threw a $125,000 bonus contract at him in 1980. As it turned out, Beane couldn’t hit for average or power, wasn’t much of a fielder, had a mediocre throwing arm, and didn’t get aboard enough for anyone to assess his base-running prowess. He was, in short, a bust. He kicked around Major League Baseball from 1984 to 1989 and compiled this line: 301 at-bats, an anemic .219 average, and .246 OBP. He struck out 80 times and had just 29 RBIs and three homeruns. (One wonders which stiffs surrendered those!)
Moneyball shows Beane’s futility in flashbacks, but the film really centers on 2002, by which time Beane–played by Brad Pitt–had been a successful general manager of the Oakland As for five years. Each year from 1999 on, Beane built a winning team and each year it was gutted by parsimonious owners claiming that as a “small-market” team the A’s simply couldn’t afford to keep players poised to make big bucks on the free agent market. We meet GM Beane after the 2001 season has just ended with Oakland’s loss in the opening round of the playoffs. More disappointment looms; the team is about to lose its biggest stars: slugger Jason Giambi, slick outfielder Jermaine Dye, and closer Jason Isringhausen. No easy help is on the way; owner Steve Schott has told Beane that payroll must be trimmed.
What transpired was one of MLB’s weirdest stories. Beane hired a sabermetrics whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and the two of them built a roster based on statistical probability rather than scouting reports. It was a team of retreads and non-stars that every expert in the game said would lose 100 games; it won 103 and set an American League record by winning 20 games in a row. We see the season unfold in dramatic and convincing fashion, the action made real by the strategic use of archival footage and the fact that the actors look as if they have actually used a bat for something other than breaking and entering. When Stephen Bishop as David Justice takes rips in the batting cage, his swing actually looks like that Justice. Baseball fans know how the 2002 season ended, but it’s a lot of fun watching Beane’s misfits get there.
Brad Pitt continues to demonstrate his transformation from a pretty face into a competent actor. A Best Actor Oscar nomination would be deserved and a victory would not be upsetting. He portrays Beane as a man torn between duty, desperation, and disappointment, the latter in the form of a broken marriage and infrequent contact with a daughter whom he loves deeply. He’s fed good lines from a script cowritten by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and delivers them with charm and just the right touch of smarm, edginess, and baseball superstition.
The film is about baseball, but it’s also about the American obsession with winning, its emphasis on work over personal satisfaction, and the cult of experts. We revel in seeing Beane defy expectations in the same way we’d root for John Henry to best the steam-powered drilling machine.
Should we trust the message? Well… the jury’s out on that one. Manager Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) was furious about the film and claims credit for the remarkable 2002 season. (And what’s he done since 2002--oh yeah, led the Mets to ruin.) The film does leave us with a bit of baseball BS, though. A different John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox, offered Billy Beane a job after the 2002 season, the Sox team owner. Beane turned it down and we’re left with a coda that says the 2004 Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in over eight decades after using roster-building methods developed by Beane and Brand. Nonsense and poppycock! The Red Sox had the second highest payroll in MLB that year--double that of Oakland and 5.5 times higher than that of the cheapest team, Milwaukee. In truth, MLB continues to debate sabermetrics and Beane’s alleged genius. From 2007 on Oakland has not finished above .500 and whether one likes it or not, cheap teams seldom win the Big Enchilada. Stats tell me a different story–that Oakland’s 2002 season was a fluke. In the long run, the law of averages smiles on the deep pocketed.