Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 31, 2015)
With 2011’s Moneyball, we get an unusual sort of baseball film: one focused behind the scenes. In the 2001 playoffs, the Oakland A’s get eliminated by the New York Yankees. Faced with the departure of many notable stars – and the continuing pressure of a limited budget – A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) searches for a new way to improve his team.
While in a trade discussion with Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro (Reed Diamond), Beane notices the influence displayed by player analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Intrigued, Beane finds out that Brand has developed a variety of statistical analyses to better discern player potential and value.
Beane gloms onto Brand’s ways to figure out how to improve the team within their financial confines. We follow the way their partnership grows and impacts the team during the 2002 season – as well as conflicts that come from those focused on the old ways of player analysis.
Moneyball offers a weird subject to be adapted for the big screen, as the original book focused on statistics and their usage, not the people. A more literal translation would’ve made sense as a documentary but not as a feature film.
While the folks behind Moneyball have done a nice job of developing the dramatic side of things, we still find vestiges of its source, mainly via the way the movie occasionally feels like the analytical argument found in the book. At times, the flick comes across as a cinematic attempt to prove the correctness of Beane’s statistical preferences and to discredit the old scout-based methods.
Fans might want to screen a double feature of Moneyball and 2012’s Trouble with the Curve, as the latter acts like a counterpoint to the former. While Moneyball mocks scouts and traditional techniques, Curve embraces them. I suspect good baseball teams understand the value of both, but movies don’t tend to favor subtleties, so these stories veer toward the “either/or” side of the street.
Because of this, Moneyball can feel like propaganda. It gives us a hamfisted portrayal of scouts as out of touch and doesn’t offer them the credit they deserve. No matter how hard the analytics guys may argue otherwise, competitive sports will never be an exact science; the human factor prevents the true objective use of numbers for all circumstances, even if Moneyball tries to convince us math rules all.
I do enjoy the “inside baseball” aspects of Moneyball. I love the sport and the glimpse behind the scenes – even if heavily fictionalized – can be a blast to see.
In addition, Pitt fills the lead role well. He doesn’t do much to expand beyond his usual onscreen personality, but he gives Beane a good mix of cockiness and humility that suits the chareacter. Given Beane’s path from “can’t-miss” prospect to down-on-his-luck former pro, he needs the slightly beaten down feeling Pitt adds.
I just wish Moneyball managed a less heavyhanded approach – and it’d be nice it favored the facts more than it does. In particular, the movie ignores some key factors in the team’s success such as shortstop Miguel Tejada and starting pitcher Barry Zito. You’d think the MVP and the AL Cy Young winner might’ve had something to do with the squad’s winning ways, but they get nary a mention in Moneyball because they don’t fit the narrative. Zito and Tejada weren’t cast-off spare parts who matched the “moneyball” theme, so they’re non-entities, even if in real life, the A’s season owed a whole lot more to them than to the players we see on display.
In addition, Moneyball takes the somewhat odd approach to its climax, as the team’s 20-game winning streak acts as emotional peak. As awesome as they string of victories may have been, it became meaningless in the long run because no one cares about regular season success.
The 2002 A’s – like every other Beane-run squad – flamed out in the playoffs. Moneyball needs to accentuate the winning streak because it lacks any other climax. Dramatically, this works fairly well, but it still creates an odd “actual ending” to the movie, as Moneyball needs to remind us that the 2002 A’s flopped in the playoffs.
All of this leaves Moneyball as an entertaining but flawed sports drama. Honestly, it feels like an update on Bad News Bears much of the time. Moneyball keeps us entertained but doesn’t work as well as I’d like.