Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller (in his first film since the 2005 Capote) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, TV’s The West Wing) is the new baseball and maths film, based on a book about baseball and maths, which is in turn based on the true-life tale of the low-payroll 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team…
…whose success happened to involve the heavy application of baseball.
These are generally unfashionable topics – although, I happen to adore both – but fortunately it isn’t the bulk of what’s going on in Moneyball. Yes it has its … technicalities…, but it is still accessible for normal UK cinema-going folk. This is because Moneyball is a softly spoken story about behind-the-scenes of a game, not the complicated game itself. In fact people should be aware there isn’t much on the field sports-drama involved at all – if you are expecting a brash baseball version of Any Given Sunday you will be disappointed – games take up little of the 130 minute running time. But this is to Moneyball’s credit, as the interesting things are going on behind the scenes and Moneyball is primarily about the likeably obstinate A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) – a failed baseball wunderkid who risks his livelihood and reputation on an unproven theory to try and win an unfair game for his team.
Those familiar with Michael Lewis’ smash hit book (of the same name) will see Miller sticks closely to its engaging structure – tracking the Athletics remarkable 2002 season while dipping in and out of Billy Beane’s past. It begins quickly with the Oakland A’s, a team of a $40 million payroll, losing a deciding 2001 playoff game to the New York Yankees ($120 million), a defeat that is quickly compounded by the loss of their best 3 players to free agency.
Their problem is they simply cannot afford to keep them.
After all this is Oakland, where players have to pay for their drinks.
And so Billy Beane’s work begins. Frustrated at the impossible task of competing with big market teams, he knows he has to change his whole approach, and quickly finds his light in the form of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill – curiously playing the only fictitious person in Moneyball after Paul DePodesta refused to allow his name to be used). Brand – in his first job of any kind – is a statistician who not only believes the baseball market is inefficient, he has written a mathematical paper to try and prove it and a computer model that ranks every player in baseball. His conclusion – baseball undervalues certain rejects who may not do things prettily – like hitting, being slow and fielding – but do one unglamourous thing very well : being patient and getting on base.*
And for Peter Brand – getting on base is the most important statistic in baseball.*
Seeing the potential in this new way of playing, Beane immediately goes after Brand’s misfits that get on base, but aren’t wanted by any other team, which makes them both cheap and exceptionally grateful. However the scouts haven’t even heard of half of them, and disbelieving dissent ensues as Beane wheels and deals to get the guys no other team is interested in.
They tell him they are making the A’s into a laughing stock of major league baseball.
The new obscure-stats-based methodology also goes down like a jockstrap of cold sick with Oakland’s coach Art (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to start Beane’s misfit players and Oakland begin the season poorly. Stubborn as ever, Billy fires scouts and impulsively forces Art’s hand by trading away “regular” players until the team finally play his way.
There are nice touches on the day-to-days of professional sports – how players deal with their commodity nature of being tradable at any time, the fragility of their confidence, and the importance of a contract for fringe players skilled only in playing ‘ball – but Pitt’s performance as Beane and the story behind his stubbornness are the stand-out anchors of the two hour plus Moneyball. It is Beane’s gamble after all, and the knowledge that he was considered the finest talent of his high school year, but somehow couldn’t get it together as a player, that gradually colours every decision he makes and raises the stakes.
Miller deserves enormous credit for the patient way he lets this develop – never trying to over-dramatise or exaggerate the action (which would have probably just dumbed it down), and if anything he tones down the Michael Lewis book, spending more quiet time with Beane and his relationship with his daughter than with Beane getting angry and breaking things (which he does quite frequently). Pitt and Hill also play ball in this regard. Pitt is restrained – even when breaking things – and Jonah Hill (in a standout role) is positively flatlined compared to his normal extrovert self, barely moving a facial muscle when talking but yet still somehow endearing, especially when he does. Seymour Hoffman also chimes in with a disgruntled manager that seems so effortless he may well have played the role in his sleep.
If the character mix is simple and rich, the visual style follows an unfussy suit. It is basic but occasionally stylish, particularly for the baseball, which mixes actual 2002 footage with close-ups shot especially for the film.
For fans of the book, not everything goes in and some more is added. Beane’s character is developed a little more – Beane’s family and daughter are welcome additions and Beane has more personal interaction with the players (including a memorable scene with David Justice) – but this does remove some of his impersonal ruthlessness as a result. There is also insufficient time to go into the book’s tangents on the fascinating misfits Beane hires – like submarine pitcher Chad Bradford whose hand scrapes the grass when he pitches – but Miller tries to address this by allowing most players a key moment or scene.
Adding up all the percentages, the aggregate is a poignant underdog near docu-story. If the book felt sensationalised, the film compensates by being more grounded.
An interest in baseball and statistics certainly helps, but there’s enough for others to get involved. Yes there isn’t much razzle-dazzle, popcorn chundering or gaudy sports suspense, and the film is over a couple of hours, but the story of a couple of guys plugging away without a safety rope at what they believe in – under enormous pressure – is more than engaging enough to make the time pass unnoticed. And that’s before you take into account this all this actually happened.
Furthermore managerial misfit Beane – who will spend his entire time building a team but never watching a game – has a compelling journey as he tries to find a place in the game he could never quite figure out, and the cast enjoy a refreshing chemistry.
So if you like baseball, maths, the docu-drama style of The Social Network, or watching the risky endeavour of trying something new – you’ll be in for a moving, sports-twisted treat.
Add or subtract a half-star depending on your interest in the sport. Or maths!
*For the uninitiated a player can primarily get on base (as in not be one of 3 outs allowed in an inning) two ways – hit the ball and reach the base 90ft away before the ball, or without the ball being caught, OR patiently work the “count” to see if the pitcher throws 4 “balls” – pitches that miss an imaginary hitting zone – before he throws 3 strikes – pitches that pass through the zone, or any pitch swung on and missed. The idea is that hits are sexy and valued by scouts – who have operated the same way for 150 years – and walks are disciplined but bland and unnoticed. But according to Peter Brand, they are just as good as a hit, while also tiring out the opposing pitcher by making him throw more pitches.