Movie review by Greg Carlson
In the sixth chapter of Michael Lewis’s bestseller “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane likens the demeanor of his ball club to the comedy “Major League.” The direct comparison fails to make it into Bennet Miller’s handsome, understated, and fictionalized movie version of the book, but the parallel is apt – because the underdog battling against all odds is almost certainly the most employed trope in sports movies. Baseball fanatics will debate the movie’s accuracy in numbing detail, but Miller is less concerned with the specific history of the A’s 2002 season than with the compelling tale of an iconoclast determined to test conventional wisdom.
“Moneyball” floats several David and Goliath scenarios central to Lewis’s original thesis, but the principal conflict, predicated on the huge gulf between the biggest and smallest payrolls in Major League Baseball, sets up statistic-rich sabermetrics decision-making against the romantically inclined traditions of individual player assessment. With Beane as protagonist, it is no surprise that Miller paints the roomful of jargon-spewing Oakland scouts as buffoonish dinosaurs whose shocking inability to recognize markers of legitimate accomplishment over hopeful expectations of future potential provides the simplified conflict demanded by big-budget moviemaking.
There’s more to it than that, and “Moneyball” fleetingly pays tribute to modern stats godfather Bill James, the man whose wit, philosophy and curiosity made mincemeat of many traditional beliefs about crunching big league numbers. Beane discovers his own magician and James disciple in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character primarily representing Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow the use of his name and likeness to the filmmakers. Beane takes the green Brand under his wing, and the unlikely partnership, comically punctuated by the physical discrepancy between Pitt and Hill, develops into the movie’s fundamental relationship.
Miller, who directed Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar in “Capote,” boldly and surprisingly diminishes the actor’s role as A’s manager Art Howe, undervaluing Hoffman like so many of the players alluded to in “Moneyball.” Despite the actor’s fame, Howe fades into the background following a testy power struggle between front office and dugout, and the movie is made poorer by his absence. While “Moneyball” focuses on Beane, a handful of the players originally highlighted by Lewis, including David Justice, Chad Bradford, Jeremy Giambi, and especially Scott Hatteberg, contribute to the telling of the story.
The “Moneyball” script, credited to Academy Award-winning writers Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, punches up the relationship between Beane and his daughter Casey and the scenes between Pitt and Kerris Dorsey underscore Beane’s down-to-earth decency as a man whose unhealthy devotion to competition is outweighed by an underlying commitment to “not-baseball.” Despite Lewis’s original characterization of Beane as something of a maniac – and his apology in the afterword for doing so – Beane’s quirky habit of avoiding the stands, fans, and luxury boxes of the Coliseum during games humanizes him. “Moneyball” contemplates Beane’s failures as much as his successes, and the A’s record-setting twenty game winning streak means nothing when the team doesn’t make it to the World Series.