Film Review: Moneyball

(The real) Scott HattebergBennett Miller's Moneyball doesn't present sabermetrics as a revelation.  That might be the key factor in making the film enjoyable for both of the movie's target audiences: hardcore baseball fans who know Michael Lewis' original book front-to-back and want to see if Hollywood gets the details right, and for more casual moviegoers who don't know the Oakland A's from the Oakland Raiders but are always interested in seeing Brad Pitt on the big screen.

The film streamlines Lewis' book into just the 2002 season, as the A's have just lost a heartbreaking ALDS to the Yankees and now face a winter of losing Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon to free agency.  GM Billy Beane (Pitt) is getting frustrated over the realities of small-market baseball but gets inspiration when he encounters Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, playing a composite version of Paul DePodesta), a young, Yale-educated economist working in the Cleveland front office.  Brand shows Beane the value — both financially and competitively — of signing unheralded players who take a lot of pitches, take walks and generally don't fit the mold that most teams look for in a Major Leaguer.

Along the way, Beane and Brand run into resistance from Oakland scouts, Oakland manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the media and the fact that the A's struggle through the first few months of the season.  The team starts to gel, however, culminating in an incredible 20-game winning streak that tied an AL record.

The 20th win is more or less treated as the "Hollywood ending" so often seen in sports movies, since obviously Oakland's loss to Minnesota in the ALDS that year wasn't exactly an inspiring justification of Beane's strategies.  (Also, the Athletics' 20th win was a game worthy of a movie in itself.)  Yet the fact that Miller gives voice to the critics in the wake of Oakland's eventual defeat is a strong choice — it acknowledges the reality that there is no magic formula to putting together a team and that the sabermetric strategy was only a singular, and temporary, part of the Athletics' success.  Pitt plays Beane as a smart and competent man who believes in what he's doing, but also allows just a bit of doubt to keep his feet fully grounded.

For baseball fans, the obvious elephant in Moneyball's room isn't Stomper, but the fact that the 2002 A's weren't a surprise.  The Athletics are presented as an "island of misfit toys," to use Brand's description, but in real life, Oakland was coming off two consecutive playoff appearances.  Even with free agent losses, they still had the likes of Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder on board.  These players are barely mentioned in Moneyball, with Scott Hatteberg, David Justice and Chad Bradford instead featured as the key figures in the team's success.  That trio combined for a 5.5 WAR in 2002, while Hudson by himself had a 6.6 WAR (Zito was 5.5).  Obviously focusing on the players acquired due to sabermetric analysis fits the film's underdog theme, but treating the A's like the Roy Hobbs-less New York Knights is a bit disingenuous.

Those wondering how Moneyball would recreate, or dramatize, Lewis' portions of the book that deal with the 2002 draft….well, never mind, since the draft isn't even mentioned.  Other important "Moneyball" figures as Jeremy Brown, Kevin Youkilis and Bill James are only briefly cited, though in James' case, it's probably best that he was just noted as the father of sabermetrics and not used as an animated narrator, as was the plan when Steven Soderbergh was originally supposed to direct the film.

Still, factual liberties are to be expected, especially given that Lewis' book doesn't follow a clear narrative.  Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) are no stranger to adapting real-life stories to the screen and they approach Moneyball as Beane's story since that will make it the most easiest to digest for mainstream audiences.  Pitt is up to the part, turning in a fine performance and making Beane a character compelling enough that you're eager to watch him NOT watch a ballgame.

Beane is so centralized as Moneyball's main figure that Brand basically just seems like his sidekick, and it may have helped to get a bit more insight into Brand's feelings at seeing his theories actually being applied by a Major League team.  The film also seems to be missing a payoff scene between Beane and Howe where Howe begrudgingly admits that his boss had a point.  (Though, since Howe actually didn't return to manage the A's in 2003, perhaps such a scene would've been a total invention.)  Hoffman makes the most out of the role, but the Howe character is incomplete enough that it seems a waste of a gifted actor like Hoffman, who won an Oscar when he was last directed by Miller in 2005's Capote.

The film does well by its baseball scenes, in part because several of the actors portraying the A's are former major and minor leaguers, most notably Royce Clayton as Tejada.  Moneyball generates some amusing tension from a scene where Beane and Brand are trying to negotiate a trade for Ricardo Rincon, which baseball fans may find comical given the relatively low stakes of picking up a reliever at the trade deadline.  Nevertheless, the scene is a (very simplified) example of the mindgames that GMs often use on each other in negotiations. 

Those expecting a documentary about the 2002 Oakland A's will be disappointed by Moneyball, as will those who value the opinions of baseball scouts, given how harshly the old-timer scouts are depicted.  That said, Moneyball succeeds at its basic goal of delivering an entertaining story and making in-depth statistical analysis understandable and relatable to audiences that might barely understand balls and strikes.  And, to boot, this character study of an impassioned, small-market GM may gain some unintentional comedy points if the real Billy Beane ends up as the general manager of the Cubs

Image by Scott Wachter/Icon SMI

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36 Comments on "Film Review: Moneyball"

4 years 10 days ago

Mark, damn good review.

4 years 10 days ago

Just got back!  This is a must see!

Great Baseball movie!  Absolutely AMAZING! I know there are some things left out, but my wife and I loved it  Go watch it guys, it is worth it

4 years 10 days ago

saw the movie this morning…thought it was great…must see for any baseball fan!!!

4 years 10 days ago

I guess they figured tejada and friends “special” training regimen didn’t belong in the movie.

4 years 10 days ago

They are saving that for the Bud Selig movie

4 years 10 days ago

Shouldn’t the Rays be featured in Hollywood? They’ve had much more success as a small market team than the A’s

4 years 10 days ago

I’d imagine if it was about the Rays, it would be a great movie that hardly anyone would go to see,

4 years 10 days ago

Kind of like anything involving the A’s in the present and future.

3 years 8 months ago

Yes, the Rays should bee featured in Hollywood, but somebody need’s to write a book about the Rays, then become a best seller, and then people would go and watch the movie. 

4 years 10 days ago

Rental only for me!

4 years 10 days ago

Or you could just download it off the internet once it comes out like a normal person…

4 years 10 days ago

Where is my bootleg DVD hook-up?

4 years 10 days ago

Just got back from seeing it.  Great movie!  Of course, I may be a little biased – I was AT the games where they won their 18th, 19th and 20th in a row. 

4 years 10 days ago

I thought that was you in the stands!

4 years 10 days ago

Of course Moneyball fans and saberheads are going to be bit disappointed by the portrayal of the book in film.  But the same can be said of ANY good book when Hollywood gets a hold of it.  Considering they had to take a niche-market book and give it mass-market appeal, they appear to have done a pretty fair job…

4 years 10 days ago

Weeeee ooooooooh weeeeeee oooooooooooh!  Grammar police… do you know why I pulled you over?

When teams come together, they “jell” (unless, of course, you are implying that the players combined to form a molded dessert that old people often bring to Christmas parties).

4 years 9 days ago

is that your way of telling the world you own a fleshlight?

4 years 10 days ago

  Many scouts hate the movie but they miss the true point of money ball that many players are not the tools player but can just play more than their abilities.  Remember when a pitcher needed a fast ball to hit 90+ to get drafted or they must be tall.  Now days players with abilities but not dominating tools turn out to be great players once they are given a chance.  Its easy to pick the top 10 prospects but after the first 25 its a crap shoot even for scouts.  Baseball America the most over rated publication hates the movie because it shows they are not right many times.

4 years 10 days ago

Over those same 20 games the Angels went 19-1. There’s no reason why it needs to be mentioned, just a fun fact about a team that also could have a movie made about them.

They did the MLB a huge favor by beating the Giants in the WS that year. Who cares if Glaus was probably juicing, they stopped Bonds from winning a ring, which would have been a tragedy in light of the steroid era!

4 years 10 days ago

Excellent baseball movie. I, too, found it a little odd that there was no mention of the huge seasons turned in by Chavez and Tejada. They had both performed similarly in 2001 as well, so the despair being presented during the off season meetings seemed slightly overblown to me. Still, very enjoyable movie.

4 years 10 days ago

if they did a movie about the Rays, they could A/ add a little hair and a smile and flip Phil Seymour-Hoffman straight into the Joe Maddon role; B/ easily rent an airplane hangar to double as Tropicana Field and C/ find any excuse whatsoever to create a role for Eva Longoria

4 years 9 days ago

I def plan on seeing the movie myself regardless of what any of the analyst say being that Mr. Depodestra is now part of my organization and I must say I really enjoyed the book..

4 years 9 days ago

As an A’s fan, I could see a lot wrong with it, particularly the vicious portrayals of Art Howe and Grady Fuson, but it did popularize the sabermetric concepts and was nice enough to give props to Bill James.
As a divorced father, I appreciated that they made such a big deal of Beane putting his relationship with his daughter first. (Oddly, I sided with the A’s over the Giants largely because the Coliseum was a better Sunday afternoon outing with my kids than Candlestick was, and then when the Giants moved to AT&T their ticket prices weren’t exactly divorced-Dad-paying-child-support friendly).
As a movie, I’d give it an 8.

4 years 6 days ago

a dissident is here…

5) the movie was extremely slow and long.  they definitely could have done a better job editing.
4) pitt’s performance was unremarkable at best.  i think this has more to do with the direction than pitt’s actual acting ability.
3)  they made beane look like a hero, even when he was meddling with managerial affairs.
2)  very grim outlook of what it is like to be a gm.  the film made it seem so stressful that it is not worth the dream job label.  i think they were desperately trying to create drama out of beane’s life.
1) just a depressing film.  not much joy in the film.  definitely not what I want from a baseball movie.

3 years 10 months ago

5. Baseball is slow and boring
4. Pitt is a baseball GM how exciting can you be… go watch Troy if you fancy it
3. He changed the game with sabrematrics just ask the Red Sox
2. Then go back to your stoner job at Taco Bell
1. Go watch Sandlot then

3 years 8 months ago

I have to agree, I want more Damn Yankees than throwing the TV at the wall.

3 years 11 months ago

Anyone notice Raul Ibanez was black?

3 years 10 months ago

Yeah casting was ridiculous for a lot of the players.  I was anticipating Mike Sweeney being black too…and strangely they showed actual footage from the 2002 season,  which included the bald-as-can-be Billy Koch, then the guy who played him in the film throws his glove in the dugout, flaunting a pretty decent head of hair.

Notin J. Notin
3 years 11 months ago

I see this thread is pretty inactive.  Apparently the Moneyball movie was a lot like the Moneyball strategy – it works well in September but completely disappears in October…

3 years 10 months ago

Loved the movie.  A lot of seemingly unnecessary additions and subtractions were made, but on second thought they most likely catered to the non-baseball-fan movie goers.  As an A’s fan though, I’m biased.