Moneyball

"How can you not get romantic about baseball?"

Also opening this week:

• Puss in Boots ★★★

Moneyball

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Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Brent Jennings, Ken Medlock, Tammy Blanchard, Jack McGee, Vyto Ruginis, Nick Searcy, Glenn Morshower, Casey Bond, Nick Porrazzo, Kerris Dorsey, Arliss Howard, Reed Thompson. Written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.

One of the best baseball movies ever made, and certainly one of the most realistic, Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is a real surprise. Based on what should have been an unfilmable book – Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which was not about story or character but statistics and ideas – director Miller and screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian have done the unthinkable and turned source material that is the very definition of ‘inside baseball’ into something accessible for most audiences.

Contemporary baseball is a game of haves and have-nots: the 2001 New York Yankees operated on player budget north of $100 million, while the Oakland Athletics struggled with a payroll less than a third of that. Things haven’t gotten better: the 2011 Yankees now work with more than $200 million, while superstar Alex Rodriguez makes more in a single season than some recent teams’ entire 40-men rosters.

Despite the disparity between the two teams, New York and Oakland met in the 2001 playoffs; the Yankees eked out a victory, but the fact that the A’s got there at all, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, was one of the most exciting things about the 2001 season.

Moneyball is about A’s GM Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), and his impossible task of repeating that success in 2002, despite the loss of three of the team’s best players (Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon) to free agency, and little increase in budget. While meeting with his talent scouts (including one – Grady Fuson – perfectly portrayed by Ken Medlock), Beane realizes the old methods of problem solving aren’t going to work here.

He’s going to have to do some creative thinking. That’s where statistician Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a low-level employee in Cleveland Indians organization Billy happens to come across while negotiating a trade, comes into play. Brand professes a new way of evaluating players – walks and on-base percentage over speed and defense – and Beane takes a chance with his (at the time, radical) ideas that will cost him his job if they don’t translate into immediate success.

This is the primary focus of Lewis’ Moneyball: the ideas that immediately translated into a new way of thinking throughout Major League Baseball. But Moneyball, the film, succeeds in other areas: most notably its ability to really get inside the Beane character, a one-time top prospect who passed up a Stanford scholarship to embark on a failed career as a player based on his evaluation by talent scouts.

Beane is played by Pitt in full movie-star swagger mode, effortlessly charismatic and extremely likable despite his character faults. Through whirlwind trade dealings, interactions with players and Oakland manager Art Howe (a wonderfully gruff Philip Seymour Hoffman), and quiet, reflective moments with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey), it’s an honest, authentic performance that ranks among the actor’s best work.

In cinematic terms, Moneyball gets just about everything right: it’s smart and funny and peppered with memorable dialogue courtesy of Sorkin (The Social Network) and Zaillian (American Gangster). And for something minus just about all the expected plotting and baseball-movie clichés, it’s incredibly well-paced by director Miller (Capote): the 2+ hour runtime seems to fly by. I also greatly appreciated Miller’s use of dead silence; you can frequently hear a pin drop during the course of this film. It’s an underused dramatic technique in contemporary cinema, whihc makes it all the more striking here.

As a cinephile, I couldn’t admire Moneyball more, and I’m nothing less than stunned that the filmmakers were able to make such an accessible film from such dense, statistics-based such material. As a lifelong baseball fan who can clearly recall the 2002 A’s, however, I do have my quibbles. The facts aren’t absolutely precise, for one; plot points are made about obtaining reliever Chad Bradford and Jason Giambi’s brother Jeremy – but both were already on the team.

More concerning, however, is the somewhat disingenuous way the Moneyball theory and the success of the 2002 Oakland A’s is presented. Personal bias: I do not agree with the ideas presented by Moneyball. But a casual viewer here would be left with the impression that Scott Hatteberg (played by Chris Pratt), David Justice (Stephen Bishop), and Bradford were instrumental to Oakland’s success. They weren’t.

The real stars for the 2002 A’s were Miguel Tejada (2002 AL MVP), Eric Chavez, and an incredible 1-2-3 rotation of Barry Zito (2002 AL Cy Young), Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder. Those players – all drafted and developed by the Oakland organization through traditional scouting methods – are never even acknowledged by the film (I spotted Hudson and Tejada, but their contributions are completely ignored.) Their combined success – and improvements – made up for a lot more of what Oakland lost via free agency than what Hatteberg and co. added.

To the average viewer, however, these concerns won’t mean a thing: Moneyball is wonderful stuff. And as a baseball fan, I get the irony-heavy bonus of watching an excellent film revolve around Hatteberg, Bradford, Mike Magnante and Ricardo Rincon.

***

Also opening:

  • Hranaři (showtimes), a Czech drama starring Saša Rašilov, Kateřina Brožová, and Jiří Langmajer, from director Tomáš Zelenka. Screening in Czech.
  • L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close) (showtimes | IMDb), a drama from director Bertrand Bonello. Screening in French with Czech subtitles.


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