BLOGS

<i>Moneyball</i>: How to Succeed In Baseball Without Really Trying

One of the perils that comes with this gig is that there are times where I walk into a theater armed with too much knowledge about what went down behind-the-scenes on the movie I'm about to see. Take Moneyball, for instance. This adaptation of Michael Lewis' best-selling baseball book -- which covered a season in the life (specifically the 2002 season) of the Oakland A's and their eccentric, wily GM Billy Beane -- has been on my radar since 2008, when one of my favorite directors, Steven Soderbergh, came onboard to shepherd the project to the big screen. As is often the case with Soderbergh, he had developed a fascinating angle he intended to bring to the proceedings, embellishing the central narrative with documentary segments featuring real-life ballplayers and casting actual members of that 2002 A's squad (including David Justice and Scott Hatteberg) as themselves in the dramatic scenes. This approach excited me, but unnerved the studio, which shut down the film just as shooting was going to start in earnest. Soderbergh quickly departed the project and Capote director Bennett Miller was eventually recruited to replace him.

I bring all of this backstory up, because I spent the first 20 minutes of Miller's Moneyball thinking about the movie that Soderbergh planned to make. Instead of a formally daring documentary/fiction hybrid, I was watching a more dramatically conventional baseball drama pitched straight down the middle at a mass audience. But once I stopped pining for the movie Moneyball might have been, I settled in and had a good time with what it was. There's no question in my mind that Miller has made a safer, more commercial movie than Soderbergh would have, but it's worth remembering that "commercial" doesn't automatically equate with "bad." Scene for scene, line for line, performance for performance, this is one of the strongest studio vehicles of the year so far and a film that belongs on the short list of baseball movies that actually get the sport. I wouldn't quite put it in the same league as Bull Durham -- which, to my mind, remains the finest baseball film of all time -- but it's at least on par with Bang the Drum Slowly, Field of Dreams and Major League.

In adapting the book to the screen, Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin choose to push to the forefront a narrative thread that Lewis wove into the fabric of his larger portrait of a team and a sport at a kind of a crossroads. Specifically, the movie is the tale of an ex-ballplayer-turned-general manager that stands up and challenges conventional baseball wisdom not just so that he'll have a winning team, but more importantly to revolutionize the game that let him down. Back in the early '80s, a fresh-out-of-high-school Beane (played in the film by Brad Pitt) was regarded by scouts and managers alike as a future Hall of Famer and made the fateful decision to pass on college to enter the Majors. Unfortunately, that record-setting career never materialized and he bounced around the league for about a decade until he made his move into the front office in the '90s. On the page, Beane doesn't exactly come out and blame baseball for promising him success and then abandoning him when he failed, although a certain frustration can be inferred from the way Lewis writes about him. The filmmakers make that simmering mixture of anger and regret explicit and use it as the primary motivation behind Beane's then-revolutionary decision to employ sabermetrics in building his 2002 team.

Don't know what sabermetrics is? Don't worry -- the film offers up an easy (if somewhat incomplete) definition. Essentially, sabermetrics is the application of in-depth statistical analysis to a game where winning is most often attributed to a combination of innate talent, specific skill sets and good old-fashioned luck. Having watched three of his best players get snapped up by other teams with significantly higher payrolls during the off-season, Beane decides to put his what little money he has to use by acquiring players that individually don't fit the established profile of future All-Stars, but collectively have the stats necessary to be a winning team. He's aided in this team-building exercise by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Ivy League-educated numbers wiz, whose approach to the game runs completely counter to the beliefs of Beane's veteran scouting staff and the A's manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Among the cast-offs and "losers" Beane and Brand choose to pick up are faded Yankees star Justice (Stephen Bishop), washed-up catcher Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) and unconventional pitcher Chad Bradford (Casey Bond). At first, their experiment looks like an epic botch, as the A's drop game after game and Beane is subjected to repeated tongue lashings in the press. But halfway through the season, something strange begins to happen: the team wins one game, then another and seventeen more after that. By September, they're on the precipice of breaking the league record for the highest number of consecutive wins--20--in a season and looking at a prime playoff berth. Despite these achievements, Bean remains dejected -- in his mind, nothing short of a World Series title will finally change the sport for good and exorcise the demons that tell him he's never been good enough to succeed at the game he loves.

It's not a spoiler to say that the 2002 A's didn't win the World Series that year. In fact, they never made it beyond the division series, losing to the Minnesota Twins, 3 games to 2. But Beane's ideas about the game didn't go ignored; these days, sabermetrics is widely employed in the front offices of baseball teams around the country, even as its merits are still vigorously debated. In classic biopic fashion, the film ultimately celebrates Beane for his achievements and awards him the onscreen redemption that he may not have achieved (and, frankly, may not even want) in real life. This Beane challenged the system and won... even though he technically lost. It's a simplified version of the actual story, but it's told well by Zaillian and Sorkin and terrifically acted by Pitt (who is really on a roll this year between this film and his impressive work in The Tree of Life), Hill and the rest of the cast. (I do wish Pratt had a bigger role; he's so good at playing dumb on Parks and Recreation, it's easy to forget that he's got more range than that, as his skillfully low-key performance here confirms.)

Behind the camera, Miller keeps the movie's visual palette simple, although he does stage one striking sequence -- the fateful 20th game in their winning streak, which finds the A's running up the score to 11-0, only to watch their lead evaporate. Dropping the instrumental soundtrack, Miller scores the scene with nothing but repeated cracks of the bat as the A's opponents score run after run; it's a terrific choice that provides the audience with a player's eye view of a game gone horribly wrong. His other interesting directorial decision is to slow the film's pace down considerably; you can hear Sorkin's trademark snappy patter throughout -- and I should add that, in addition to its baseball bona fides Moneyball is a very funny film -- but the actors don't deliver it in the same rat-a-tat-tat, walk-and-talk manner we're used to seeing in Sports Night and The Social Network. Instead, Miller gives his cast (and the movie itself) room to breathe. Stepping up to the plate for his first studio outing, Miller has delivered a well-crafted mainstream sports picture that makes up for in conviction what it lacks in inventiveness.

Watch a video interview with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and check out six facts you may not have known about Moneyball.

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