Movie Review: Moneyball
The Charlotte Observer
“Moneyball” represents the triumph of machine over man, statistics over intuition, calculation over common sense. It’s tense, strangely funny in a lot of spots and – if you grew up loving old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants baseball, as I did – the most depressing movie of the year.
It’s ostensibly about Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), frustrated general manager of the perennially underfunded and inevitably non-contending Oakland A’s. But it’s actually about the belief that everything in life can be codified and categorized, that the worth of individuals can be measured entirely by numbers. People become their daily achievements, rather than complex organisms to be inspired to greatness or rescued from the doldrums.
We meet Beane in 2001, as he falls under the spell of computer whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) while trying to replace three talented defectors to better-paying clubs.
Brand persuades him to trust Sabermetrics, a system used by sports analyst Bill James, for the 2002 season. (The name comes SABR, the acronym for James’ Society for American Baseball Research.) They confound the dismissive scouts and angry manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) by refusing to compete in the market for stars and cherry-picking undervalued performers other teams no longer think they need.
Writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin split scenes between Beane’s past, when he was a can’t-miss outfielder who failed humiliatingly, and his present, as he competes with GMs who have bigger budgets (almost everybody).
They also reveal his workaholic tendencies and guilt that he let down his ex-wife (Robin Wright in a cameo) and may be paying too little attention to his preteen daughter (Kerris Dorsey).
So he’s ripe for a risk: He has failed as a player and a dad, and he’s determined not to stumble as an executive. If the scouts were wrong when they signed him, he reasons, they could be wrong about any prospect. Safety lies in numbers: on-base percentages, hits with runners in scoring position. What a man may do doesn’t matter. What he has done defines him.
Pitt and Hill make a fine team: one explosive and one laconic, one unbuttoned and the other buttoned-down, the first loudly forceful and the second just as quietly insistent. Pitt cuts loose in a way we’ve seldom seen him, abandoning his strong-but-silent persona, and the low-key Hill has facets we haven’t seen in his lowbrow comedies.
All the supporting characters, from Beane’s endearing but never precious daughter to the room full of disbelieving scouts, add color to the film. (Hoffman does a lot with a sour puss and many bitten-off, contemptuous remarks.)
So we can root for the A’s, as Beane’s misfits and cast-offs overcome a rocky start in the 2002 season and mount a fierce pennant charge. Director Bennett Miller doesn’t let scenes drag and keeps giving us new information, justifying the 133-minute length.
And we’d hardly want to root for their opposition, the lordly teams with unlimited budgets who pick up superstars like a billionaire filling a basket at Tiffany’s. At the same time, there seems to be little room for hunches and flashes of insight in Billy Beane’s game. Making out a lineup card becomes a task as formal as balancing a tire.
The movie doesn’t tell us that Beane’s A’s peaked in 2006, though the Detroit Tigers swept them in the American League Championship Series. Since then, they have had no seasons above .500, though he’s still GM.
That’s partly because other teams adopted his methods, and partly because some millionaire prima donnas bought by wealthy owners turned out to be worth their contracts. But I’d like to think it’s also because the baseball gods still frown on decisions made entirely with computers.