Underdog stories are typically disingenuous as a rule, but there are few sports movies so disingenuous as this one. Moneyball tries really hard to convince us that it was solely General Manager Billy Beane and right-hand man Peter Brand’s gall and foresight that led to the surprising success of the Oakland Athletics in 2002. Not mentioned once was the quartet of Hudson, Mulder, Zito and Lidle who comprised the Majors best starting pitching staff that year, and whose heroics many believe were the real reason they got to the postseason. In fact, the only time Hudson is glimpsed is in a game that proved to be one of his worst starts that season, where he and the A’s almost tanked a 11-0 lead on the cusp of a 20-game winning streak. Who redeems them with a walk-off home run? None other than Scott Hatteberg, the underdog whom Beane and Brand promoted to play first base against conventional wisdom. The A’s also had future All-Stars Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Peña that season, but Moneyball ignores the first three and makes it a point that Beane traded Peña solely to force manager Art Howe to start Hatteberg at first base. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the myth that Beane and Brand and their sabermetrics won the day is discarded from the story.
Moneyball raises questions almost effortlessly, but for the sake of telling a story it wanders into pedantry. The hinted-at debate about team payrolls and player salaries never forms a coherent dialectic. Non-baseball fans won’t know, for instance, about the luxury tax imposed on the wealthiest teams (or the fact that those wealthiest tend to generate the most revenue for baseball as a whole) from watching Moneyball. If anything, the narrative choices in the film reinforce the idea that teams like the New York Yankees pilfer talent and buy championships. This is still a hotly debated contention in the baseball world and by no means fact.
But all of that’s okay, and here’s why: Moneyball isn’t a documentary. And it’s not about the Oakland A’s and their magical season1. That story is told obliquely at best. The focus is on Beane. If you forget that he wasn’t the first guy to actually implement Bill James’2 theories, among other things—after all, he buys Peter Brand from the Cleveland Indians early on in the movie—then the movie succeeds in some unique and surprising ways. Pitt is excellent as usual. His Billy Beane is a man aching to prove everyone wrong and to prove himself right. Pitt nails the swagger of a GM who played ball himself and the cupidity of one who finds himself with an organization that can’t afford to buy a playoff berth, or much else. Director Bennett spends a lot of time with Beane alone and brooding in his truck on the outskirts of Oakland or in the gym while the games are in progress.
Bennett has a way of shooting so plainly at times that Moneyball often feels like an art film. It seems though that what he’s trying to do is achieve a harmony with both Sorkin’s deadpan dialogue and the prosaic environment of the interior of Oakland’s Coliseum, for the conversationless scenes take greater license with camera movement and composition; Pfister’s photography pops in the more intimate moments with Pitt and especially in the effervescence of game-time at the stadium at the height of The Streak. Even dramatic lighting intrudes in the Sorkin-less moments, where otherwise there always seems to be the specter of fluorescents buzzing above everyone’s head. These subtle factors of costume, production design and cinematography contribute to the feel of an underdog story even without the opening titles informing us of the A’s meager 2002 payroll compared to the league’s big spenders.
The bulk of the credit, however, belongs to Aaron Sorkin whose witty and stridently upending dialogue serves this story as well as it served The Social Network, a logical companion to this film, actually, as it also dramatizes one man’s quest to defy the accepted rules, to “adapt or die” as Beane himself puts it. Major League and Bull Durham now have competition as the funniest baseball movies, though the humor here is entirely off the field; the meetings between Beane and his veteran scouts, alone, place it alongside those esteemed comedies. Busily jawing about players’ bodies and perceived flaws in an effort to replace a player they could no longer afford, Beane’s scouts sound ridiculous because they probably were. This was traditional wisdom in baseball circles, yet Beane can’t believe what he’s hearing. They actually shrug off a potential prospect because “his girlfriend is ugly”, “a six at best”, which signals to them a lack of confidence. They nix relief pitcher Chad Bradford because “he throws funny”, in spite of the fact that his peripherals indicate a valuable arm, one that, according to Brand, is the most undervalued in all of baseball. Sorkin captures the hypocrisy and humor of baseball and scouting, the shortsightedness of strategy, and the uncommon sense of the GM and his assistant in his writing.
The scenes between Brand and Beane are virtually worth the price of admission. Jonah Hill plays the bright, corpulent, fresh-faced Yale grad brilliantly; he nails awkward better than anyone and his timing here with Pitt is impeccable. Cast anyone else and most of these encounters probably fall flat. From the first encounter where Brand senses something predatory in Beane and is clearly intimidated, only to quickly build a rapport due to his keenness and passion, to the chummy last meeting that has Brand trying to raise the spirits of his pouty benefactor with an analogy—showing Beane a video clip of a player who hits a home run, but is so afraid of rounding first base that he doesn’t even realize it—the two have real co-star chemistry, even when asked to feign discomfort.
With the rise of the internet there’s been a growing (conservative?) backlash against the kind of game that Bill James and Billy Beane have helped usher in3. Baseball is now a game of numbers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sportswriter unfamiliar with sabermetrics or a web article that doesn’t reference obscure-to-the-average-fan player stats like .OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) or WAR (wins above replacement). Some older fans, or “purists”, argue that it’s taken the magic out of the game, that it’s a game of beauty and moments, not computer readouts and projections and rankings. Moneyball, thankfully, in spite of its pedantry elsewhere, cuts to the core of this without ever directly addressing it. “How can you not be romantic about baseball,” says Billy Beane after we’ve witnessed him spend two hours dispelling romantic notions about the game. None of his preseason reckoning included the magic and chaos of a 20-game win streak. You can see those old notions welling up in him, even as he’s on the brink of changing the way many of us think about the game, or rather, the way many of us appreciate it.
1 The biggest clue here is that the subtitle to Michael Lewis’ book, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, is dropped from the movie’s title.
2 James, a non-player, was obsessed with the notion that nobody in baseball really understood the game they had spent their whole lives playing, devising countless statistical tools for evaluating teams and players. His influence on baseball analysis continues to loom large.
3 The character of Peter Brand in the movie is an approximation of Beane’s real-life assistant in those days, Paul DePodesta. According to IMDb, the name change was due to DePodesta’s objection to be being cast as a stats nerd, a still potent epithet in baseball circles.