Saturday, October 1, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

When I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt, I went out in the spring to purchase some sort of baseball preview magazine -- I had always been a big Street and Smith fan. Instead I found a paperback book called the Bill James Baseball Abstract. As soon as I started to read it, I knew I had stumbled onto a different world. James didn't write about baseball like anyone else. He didn't use cliches, he didn't think much of the big shots who ran the game, and he seemed to judge everyone on some unique scale that made sense only to him. In fact, he was trying to lead an intellectual revolution against almost every aspect of baseball -- how the game was played, how teams were put together, how managers were chosen, which players were brought up or sent down. But he was no crank; his articles were clear and persuasive, and his claims were backed up by statistical analyses in rigor and detail that had never previously been applied to sports. To me, his conclusions seemed self-evident, and I assumed everyone would soon adopt them.

This did not happen, of course, for the simple fact that powerful people would generally rather apply the conventional wisdom and fail than take the chance that something different might succeed. But the great thing about free speech is that good ideas can be advocated even when they annoy the powerful -- and over time, such ideas may find an audience. In the early 2000's, Billy Beane -- the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics -- received a great deal of publicity after the A's used Bill James-like principles to make the playoffs despite a small payroll. Michael Lewis subsequently turned Beane's story into a book called Moneyball, and now the book has been made into a movie.

It should be acknowledged that much of Lewis's interpretation of the Beane saga remain controversial, and I am sure that many people who dislike Beane, or who don't think he deserves credit for the A's success in the early 2000's, or who believe that success had nothing to do with Bill James or his principles, will find this movie annoying. In my opinion, however, few things are more tiresome than people who complain about whether a movie based on historical events presents things as they "really" happened. Of course they don't -- they're movies, not history books. The purpose of a movie is not to present facts as they actually occurred, but to entertain an audience.

By this standard, Moneyball the movie is a remarkable success. Aaron Sorkin co-wrote the screenplay, which shows the wit and polish normally associated with his work. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, and gives a truly dominant performance. His Beane is, on the surface, a true California golden boy -- handsome, brilliant, a former Major League player himself, blessed with remarkable charm and a loving 12-year-old daughter. Plus he runs a baseball team! To the typical middle-aged baseball fan, Beane's life looks like a glorious fantasy. But Pitt does a great job of showing that Beane is really a tortured figure -- he was an abysmal failure as a player, he is forced to share custody of his daughter with his ex-wife, and he is so superstitious that he cannot bear to watch the A's play a game. Most importantly, he suffers with the sort of temperament -- very common among successful people -- that hates losing more than it enjoys winning.

Pitt appears in virtually every scene, and for the movie to work he must persuade the audience to see, understand, and believe in all aspects of his character's personality. The skill with which he accomplishes this fact is a joy to behold -- and when I compare this performance to his work in Tree of Life (where he played a very different character), I can only conclude that Pitt is at the very top of his profession and that his enormous fame (so much of which rests on his complex personal life) does not do justice to his abilities.

Pitt is also fortunate to have a strong supporting cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who may be the best living American actor, has a small but important role as Art Howe, the A's manager, whose old-school sensitivities are offended by what he sees as Beane's goofy ideas. In the hands of a lesser actor, Howe would have come across as a simplistic villain, but Hoffman gives Howe the presence and dignity appropriate for a figure of Howe's stature, allows the audience to see that Howe's skepticism is not mere truculence, but rests on deeply-held convictions about how baseball should be played. Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the one fictional character in the story -- although he is based on a real person. Brand, who symbolizes the economists and statisticians who have recently come to prominence on MLB front offices, is a 20-something Yale Econ major and baseball geek somewhat overwhelmed by Beane's faith in his theories. As a nerd in a baseball movie, Brand could easily have been limited to comic relief, but Hill's performance and the script show us a character who is preternaturally gifted at analyzing talent, and who is really trying to develop the grown-up personality he needs to escape from geekdom.

Enormous credit should also be given to whoever was responsible for the baseball parts of the movie. I normally hate movies about professional sports, because they usually fall back on made up teams ("the New York Knights") or their portrayals of game play are annoyingly unrealistic. But in this movie, my fan radar was not offended by any such flaws, which allowed me to simply enjoy the story. At the same time, the screenplay tells the story in a way that it can be readily understood by people who know almost nothing about baseball -- a trick that is harder than it looks.

Finally, I give the screenwriters credit for their decision to honor Bill James by name throughout the film. Even though James does not appear as a character, the movie lets audiences know that he was the true intellectual driver of the "Moneyball" revolution. As it should. I really believe that James is the most successful public intellectual of my lifetime -- no other writer in recent years has been so effective at changing the culture through the sheer force of his writing. These days, everyone plays Moneyball -- it's the only way you can win. It is a remarkable achievement, and I am excited that this movie will give so many people the chance to learn about it.

Highly recommended, even to people who don't like baseball.


  1. I'm glad to hear it's so good. I thought the previews looked good, but now I'm definitely more interested in seeing it.

    About historically oriented movies ... my dad loved those things, and he did complain if they veered too far from the facts (but, if he liked the movie and there was a gulf between what was portrayed and his previous understanding of what had taken place, he tended to believe that moviemaker had the real truth and that the news/history books had been selling us a bunch of jive. Anyway, there was advertised either a movie or a miniseries--I think it was a miniseries--about the life of President Kennedy, and my dad was so excited to see that Martin Sheen would be playing the lead role. I so distinctly remember his telling me, "By the end of that thing, you'll believe Martin Sheen was President Kennedy." Movies or miniseries like that always seemed to be a big deal at our house. We went over the moon for Roots, too.

  2. Moneyball is actually playing in Madisonville, so my wife and I are excitedly lining up babysitting this week!

  3. We ended up, indeed, seeing it at the theater last fall, and it was fantastic. And now we are spending New Year's Eve watching it in our living room, and it is even better. For my money, this might be the best movie since Apollo 13.