Moneyball is different from the other sports films. It is mostly about the backroom strategizing and politics. It’s about how the baseball leagues are played in the offices by the GMs, the coaches and owners of Major League Baseball teams. There are very few shots of actual games, which might put some people off. But the consolation is, it is the retelling of one of the most interesting sports stories ever.
Nowadays, victories and championships in almost every sport is determined by who has the most money (except when it comes to Chelsea FC). The Oakland Athletics has a $40 million seasonal budget against a $100 million budget for the rest of the other teams. Predictably, they don’t have the strongest of teams. They try to cope by finding good, cheap players who they always have trouble keeping. Soon as their contracts are up, they move to the better paying teams like the Yankees and the Soxxes.
Billy Beane clashes with the club’s scouts as he seeks out a better strategy. He meets an analyst by chance and hires him on the spot. He doesn’t cut the look of the usual baseball crowd (he wears a suit to work) but seems to know something about scouting that Beane doesn’t. He joins the As scouting team at a time when the club is about to go on a 14-game losing streak and together with Beane, pull an about-turn to set the record for the most consecutive victories in MLB history. Sounds too good to be true, but it is.
Beane and Brandt take a different approach to scouting. By looking at oft overlooked stats that can also be as important, and by accepting players who wouldn’t be picked by major teams due to minor flaws, they turned baseball on its head. Beane agrees to try out methods that are being presented to him by an economics major from Yale who has never worked in baseball before. For any film, this would be a challenge. Where is the believability? Why would a former player who’s been in the business for more than 40 years take the word of someone who’s never played the game or been involved in the sport?
We are made to understand why Pitt is ready to take a chance on Hill through a series of flashbacks that play throughout the film. They are of Beane’s playing days, from being the number one draft to gradually degenerating into the B leagues and leaving MLB as a failure. He has reason enough to believe that conventional scouting methods might not be reliable, because he is the testament.
I found it fascinating that the kid that plays younger Beane looks very much like Pitt. He doesn’t have much to do performance-wise, though. Pitt is great in the film. He looks disheveled and stressed but with just enough hope to shuffle his team one more time. Hill also believable plays a smart-ass, the last thing I’d expect from him. He’s very eloquent explaining baseball stats as he is telling vagina jokes on Superbad. The awkward triangle between him and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as coach) and his trusted relationship with Beane creates one of the best—and smallest—ensemble performances of the year.
The score is great, one of my favorites of the year. The direction and writing is good. There’s an interesting story about the adaptation of the book from the initial Sorderberg draft to this one by Zaillian and Sorkin. The book was written by Michael Lewis and the story around it written by Stan Chervin. Steven Sorderberg, who signed on two direct, wrote the screenplay but his draft was thrown out and he walked out of the project two days before filming started (dunno what happened first). Steve Zailian wrote the next draft, which they used to shoot. Somewhere between all of this, Aaron Sorkin also made contributions. The real story around the screenplay is kind of murky. But they say the movies that have the most trouble during production come out best (think Apocalypse Now). Pitt managed to steer this rocky project to become one of the best sports films ever. Not a lot of films about numbers ever get made because execs don’t trust viewers to enjoy them, but this one is proof that it can be done.
I love Sorkin’s work but this does looks like a diluted down version of his scripts, which I love. Because unlike his smart-ass characters, when he is watered down, the characters feel realer and not a rapid fire word minting machine. But the dialogue is still very quotable. One of my favorite scenes is one where the Beane has an argument with Grady. Said another way, whatever Pitt says isn’t all that great, but it’s the delivery and the emotion that make it classic. Same goes with the scouting scenes and the little pep talk with DJ. But the best scene and one that seals Pitt’s as one of the best performances of the year is one where he negotiates for a number of players with Brand in the room.
Another thing I loved is how the entire winning streak was treated. The long montage that not only used footage from actual games, it didn’t show much of the actual performance the team. Showing the streak through the fans made the triumph more emotional. Puts you right there in the shoes of Oakland natives, seeing their team lose every game of the season and suddenly smell victory. How they decided to end the film, I don’t know what to say about that. It puts to perspective and challenges the viewer to figure out what really was important or central to the story.
But Moneyball is still a great film, perfect, no flaws. There are a lot of strong adaptations from 2011 so it not winning everything doesn’t take anything away from it. One thing I haven’t heard anyone talk about is Chris Pratt’s performance. I found it very touching and emotional and if the Oakland A’s needed a face and a demeanor to illustrate where their team was at that moment in time, Pratt did a great job at portraying it.