Autumn is upon us.
We all know what that means. The leaves change colors. The days get shorter. The nights get cooler. And for Phillies fans, it means watching the team head deep into the playoffs with hopes of bringing home another championship.
The new film Moneyball capitalizes on baseball’s prime-time season, hitting theaters just as the playoffs are about to commence.
Normally, I find sports movies rather predictable and often snooze-worthy, but Moneyball is a sports movie that’s about more than just rooting for the underdog.
Based on the Michael Lewis bestseller and true story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, Moneyball tells the story of how general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) put together a winning team on a shoestring budget.
Other teams have lured away three of Billy’s best players with big bucks when he meets Yale economics grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who is working as an administrative assistant for the Cleveland Indians. Billy is impressed with Peter’s shrewd insights on baseball trades and lures him to the A’s, though I couldn’t understand why Cleveland let such a good thing go so easily.
Together, Billy and Peter use a little-known (back then) theory, called sabermetrics, of picking undervalued baseball players to put together a team of has-beens, misfits and also-rans, at least according to the rest of the league. Of course, Billy and Peter strongly believe that these second-tier players have the stats that prove their ability to get on base (mostly via walks and singles) and, as a result, increase the number of runs scored by a team.
Director Bennett Miller (with a script from writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) keeps the focus more on the front-office drama than on the field. Baseball fans probably know that the A’s had a well-known win streak during the 2002 season, and the film doesn’t take it lightly. In fact, it’s among the movie’s most exciting moments as Miller slowly builds anticipation for the big game and the big finish. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of the win streak, even if you’re not a devout baseball fan.
There are a lot of great, memorable scenes, but I was particularly captivated by those that show Billy and Peter summoning the detachment necessary to tell startled players that they’ve been cut or traded.
The tension between Billy and A’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) over Art’s “old school” way of playing baseball is another of the film’s more interesting aspects. It’s fun to watch the results when Art refuses to use his players according to Billy’s system.
The movie also includes some flashbacks about Billy’s life-altering decision to skip college and head straight to the pros, where he quickly fizzled on the field and headed to the front office. Some of these scenes slowed the movie a bit for me.
The scenes with Billy’s ex-wife and daughter do a good job of humanizing him and showing his life outside of baseball. Still, I wondered a bit about what kind of life his newly hired statistics whiz, Peter the number-cruncher, led outside the office.
There are plenty of baseball movies, but most aren’t based on mathematics and statistics like Moneyball. I particularly enjoyed the un-Hollywood conclusion to the story, and I’m glad it wasn’t changed to some fake happy ending.
So you’ve never heard of sabermetrics? I hadn’t either. You won’t necessarily be well-versed in the statistics of player selection after watching Moneyball, but that’s OK. Moneyball is not a documentary. It’s a feature film, designed to entertain more than educate. And it does exactly that. ••
Movie Grade: B+