Review: “Moneyball”

It would be unfair to simply label “Moneyball” as another baseball film. Based on Michael Lewis’s bestselling nonfiction book, baseball is merely the backdrop for what is essentially a universal and human story. The film delves into themes of redemption and the perception of value; the value we place on others and how that value is utilized to predict success. There is no “big game” to be found in the film as the heart of its story exists almost exclusively behind the scenes. A love or even basic understanding of baseball is not required to thoroughly enjoy “Moneyball.”

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, who in his youth was a would-be baseball superstar and is now the general manager of the financially straddled Oakland A’s. Pitt gives a superb, multi-dimensional performance as Beane, in what is the single best role of his career to date. Pitt portrays a man who was stung by failure in his youth and victimized for not being able to live up to the expectations and dreams that others had set out for him. Being a former player, Billy Beane is not the typical general manager found in baseball. Beane is portrayed as a tobacco chewing pragmatist who’s convinced that he’s right and everyone else is wrong.

The gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in baseball is wider than in any other professional sport, with the Oakland A’s residing at the bottom end. As Billy explains in the film, “There are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” In professional baseball, the rich teams can afford the best players and poor teams seem doomed for failure. As his small-market team heads into the 2002 season, Beane faces the bleak situation of having to cope with losing several of his star players that have been poached by big market ball clubs. With limited funds at his disposal (the second lowest payroll in all of baseball), he can’t afford risks. Beane seeks to ask new questions and ignore old answers in order to survive.

Beane hires an assistant to help accomplish his task, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a brainy, number-crunching, Yale-educated economist. Brand has never played the game of baseball himself, but he’s able to break it down to a mathematical equation. Brand serves as the ammunition to Beane’s sniper rifle and together they reexamine the fundamentals of how the game is structured, going against decades of convention baseball wisdom.

Armed with computer driven statistical analysis, their goal is to seek out undervalued professional baseball players who have been largely discarded as being unknown, or unfit for the major leagues. They are all victims of various perceived prejudices ranging from physical appearance, injuries, an awkward throw, or the greatest sin in sports, age. What the majority of these players have in common is a skill Beane deems as crucially important, the ability to get on base.

The most important factor in their experiment is what’s known as on-base percentage (how often a particular player gets on base). There are no time clocks in baseball; teams play until they win and it’s a game of numbers. A game consists of nine innings of play and the most important number is three. It takes three strikes to make an out and three outs to end an inning. Until the third out of any given inning is made, anything is possible. Anything that increases the chances of making an out is to be avoided. Beane stresses that on-base percentage decreases that chance since a player who reaches a base doesn’t make an out. Essentially, that’s how their system works, limiting the chances of making an out.

Beane and Brand know detailed aspects about players (such as their on-base percentages) that others aren’t keyed into. They liken themselves to card counters at a blackjack table; there’s less risk at gambling when you know the cards being dealt. Their new methods of experimentation rile the team’s old school scouts and manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Baseball tradition dictates that it’s the job of scouts to seek out potential talent for a ball club, not a computer. Having been on the receiving end of the judgments of scouts, Beane ignores their objections by attempting to find players that are the exact opposite of his younger self.

Complimenting the two leads is Philip Seymour Hoffman and as he so often does, he disappears into the role of Art Howe, the veteran baseball manager. Hoffman serves as the film’s antagonist, refusing to cooperate with Beane’s methods of gameplay. Beane likes to control all aspects of the team, and that includes functions that Howe (Hoffman) believes he’s better suited for. This leads to more than a few disagreements regarding how the team should be run.

One of the more entertaining scenes in “Moneyball” finds Beane as a frugal buyer wheeling and dealing just before the trading deadline. In baseball, the trading deadline occurs shortly after the halfway point of the season. If a team is performing well enough to contemplate a playoff run, they’re buyers. Out of necessity, Beane is usually a step or two ahead of the other general managers in baseball. He may not always be the smartest guy in the room, but he’s certainly the craftiest shark in the tank. Pitt exudes these qualities masterfully in the scene and listening to him (as Beane) discuss complex trades and deals with fellow general managers is a bit like overhearing a spider talk to a fly.

Pitt’s presence is essential to film’s success, but that’s not to say his presence carries the film. A film adaption of a book based in the world of baseball needed a solidified, A-list star to attract a general audience who may judge the film as just another sports movie. Additionally, baseball related films have little to no appeal outside of the United States, so having Brad Pitt as the star along with hopes of Oscar buzz may generate some degree of foreign interest.

Of the many parallels that exist between the making of “Moneyball” and the story it’s based on, the casting of Jonah Hill is the most glaringly obvious. An actor mostly known for his comedic performances, Hill has been undervalued for his dramatic capabilities. Hill’s performance as Peter Brand is understated and subtle as a character full of nervous energy and smarts. For Hill, the transition from comedy to drama is seamless and makes for the perfect sidekick to Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane. Simply put, the casting of Jonah Hill was a move that should make Billy Beane himself proud.

It’s hard to believe from viewing the finished film, but “Moneyball” was once considered a troubled project. For a time, Sony Pictures resembled the Oakland A’s of 2002 as they found themselves in the difficult position of having to replace an A-list filmmaker involved with the project.

Initially producers hired Academy Award winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) to adapt Lewis’s book into a screenplay and David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) to direct the film. Brad Pitt was then cast as Billy Beane as well as serving in a producer capacity. However, several months after Zaillian turned in his script, Sony Pictures decided to shift direction and sought out a new version to be written and directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”).

Obsessed with authenticity and realism, Soderbergh opted for a more documentary style approach to “Moneyball.” His faithfulness to the reality of the story led him to remove any elements that didn’t occur in real life. This included small character moments and any dialogue he perceived to be an embellished creation of a screenwriter. His vision entailed utilizing interviews of the real people involved in the actual events to help tell the story; but this revised version represented a great deviation from the initial shooting script. To their end, with an investment of an estimated $47 million, Sony desired a polished film from Soderbergh, not a piece of cinematic art.

Deeming Soderbergh’s script as too much of a departure from what they had signed up for; Sony cancelled the project just five days before principle photography was set to begin. Soderbergh was allowed to offer his version of the film to other studios, but left the project after no takers were found. Despite an intense loyalty to Soderbergh, Pitt remained onboard.

In a move to “salvage” the film, Sony hired veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for a rewrite of Zaillian’s initial script. Sorkin, perhaps best known as the writer/producer of “The West Wing,” had been working with “Moneyball” producers Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin on another film adapted from a successful book, “The Social Network” (for which he would go on to earn an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). Additionally, Bennett Miller (“Capote”) was hired to direct the stalled film.

The resulting changes worked exceedingly well as the screenplay is filled with rich dialogue, strong characters and genuine comedic moments. Beane’s personal life as a divorced father of a loving daughter is expanded upon in the film and yields some genuinely touching moments. The overall adaption is a true achievement and a testament to the talented screenwriters involved. Michael Lewis’s book is filled with numbers and statistics and devoid of a real narrative structure or obvious dramatic arcs. A film version of the book shouldn’t work, but yet it does.

“Moneyball” is a character study at its core and director Bennett Miller has a knack for exploring human nature. The film is filled with small, character driven moments that linger on screen just long enough to allow audiences to sense what a character is thinking despite a lack of dialogue. Miller is a patient director who takes time in letting important scenes play out and isn’t afraid to stay on a frame longer than other directors would generally be comfortable with.

What makes “Moneyball” so compelling is also what often makes the game of baseball itself compelling; there are often multiple levels of drama occurring at once. The drama feels real because it is; the events depicted actually occurred. Amazingly, some of the more implausible events that occur in the film (which might lead one to suspect a degree of artistic license) are in fact true.

“Moneyball” isn’t so much about the game of baseball, as it is about second chances. The second chances are shared by the film’s protagonist, Billy Beane as well those he enlists in his services. This is a film about bucking the system and defying established prejudices and conventions in order to give the underdog a chance to succeed. The film defies audiences not to get caught up in the story of Billy Beane, a man whose life was turned upside down by the game of baseball. “Moneyball” brilliantly captures how the game of baseball was turned upside down by Billy Beane.