Moneyball

On DVD and streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

At the Academy Awards, Moneyball was described more than once as a baseball movie. This drives me crazy. First, and most obviously, virtually all the action in the movie happens behind the scenes, so we see almost no gameplay whatsoever. But beyond that, most baseball movies are deeply romantic about the game; in fact, it’s not just a game. Hell, in Bull Durham, it’s a religion. Baseball movies are built around the idea that there is something exceptional and magical and unquantifiable about baseball.

Moneyball is a blunt repudiation of that idea. The whole point is that people’s love of narratives and image, the whole mythology of baseball as America’s pastime, has blinded them to the realities of how the game actually works and how it can be won. Moneyball is about boiling down all the would-be magic into cold, hard statistics. The fact that the team using those statistics is an underdog makes the coldness more palatable, but there’s still something oddly unromantic in the fabric of the film, something that makes it an obvious outlier from the arena of baseball movies. And that, of course, is a big reason why I like it.

Based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, Moneyball is an account of how the Oakland A’s, hopelessly underfunded compared to other major league clubs, cobbled together a competitive team in the 2002 season. General manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his number-crunching staff—represented in the movie as Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character largely based on Paul DePodesta—use sabermetrics, a complicated system of measurements and statistical analyses, to evaluate performance and seek out players whom the market had undervalued, often because they don’t fit the traditional scouts’ image of what a good player would look like. For example, they recruit catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), whose throwing arm is shot, meaning they’ll have to stick him into some other position he’s never played, purely because he’s still a solid hitter with a great on-base percentage.

The team’s manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), resists Beane’s unconventional plan—and at the outset, it doesn’t appear to be successful—but toward the end of the season, the A’s go on an incredible twenty-game winning streak, setting the American League record. If it weren’t true, that streak would be a ridiculous fictional overreach; since it is true, one can only marvel at the irony of such a statistically improbable but entertainingly romantic development. (I mean, for god’s sake, guess who hits the winning homerun in the bottom of the ninth during that fateful twentieth game after his teammates blow an eleven-run lead? The poor former catcher with the bum arm! Yes! I had to look that up because, seriously, who can believe that?)

I’ve gotten a bit off track, though. (I truly cannot believe that game was real.) The heart of Moneyball isn’t really in the streak, which pops up without any buildup to speak of, but in all the wonky arguments and negotiations Beane and his faithful stats henchman Brand get into. Both Pitt and Hill were nominated for Oscars for their performances, and to my perhaps unfair surprise, they both deliver more than I expected. Pitt gives Beane a constant undercurrent of anger that is both disconcerting and, occasionally, a bit off-putting. The movie plays up the idea that Beane’s career as a player was a disappointment—he was drastically overrated by scouts for the New York Mets—and that that experience is part of what makes him open as a GM to different ways of evaluating player prospects. As an origin story, it’s just about perfect, but what’s really fascinating is what Pitt does with it, skirting past outright personal bitterness into a purer, channeled anger, a sense of disillusionment that gives him a clearer eye rather than a jaundiced one.

As for Hill, this is the only noncomedic role I’ve ever seen him take, and he acquits the job admirably well. His Brand clearly feels a bit out of his element in the political muck of the ballhouse, but he’s always completely self-assured about the validity of his numbers, and that paradoxical combination of insecurity and confidence is compelling. Plus, Hill does a great job of finding the comedic beats in the drama. In Brand’s first meeting with the old scouts, when Beane throws out their recommendations in favor of the strange picks of his new pet economist, Hill makes Brand’s hesitations and over-enunciated speech and slightly deer-in-the-headlights stare hilarious. It’s a great scene, finding an interesting spin on the familiar clash of the old guard and the new.

Moneyball does that a lot, though, creating great scenes that don’t necessarily string together smoothly. The movie spent years in development hell, going through multiple screenwriters and directors with different visions for what the film should be, and honestly, I think that shows. The pacing is odd—we spend an interminable period being banged over the head with the idea that Beane’s job is in danger, and then suddenly things are fine and the team’s in the middle of its streak—and Pitt has to waste a number of scenes opposite the perfectly cute but dull little girl playing his daughter. Furthermore, the casting suggests that some actors once had larger parts that what actually ended up on screen; Robin Wright has one lone, unnecessary scene as Beane’s ex-wife, and the scouting room is dotted with recognizable character actors, some of whom don’t have a single line to my recollection. Maybe you have to be a nerd like me to notice or care about that sort of thing, but I found it distracting.

Maybe if the boring stuff with Beane’s family had been excised, the movie could have spent a bit of time on the implications and fallout of the rise of sabermetrics. Moneyball devotes a great deal of attention to Beane’s tactics in introducing it—and that’s fascinating—but I couldn’t help but wonder whether his long-term strategy is all there. Beane uses sabermetrics because it helps identify undervalued players whom he can buy up at a bargain price, thus building a team that can compete against clubs with more expensive lineups, but that only works because the market is distorted. Beane is fixated on the idea of changing the game, changing how people understand it, but he doesn’t really acknowledge that once other teams start using sabermetrics, the undervalued players will no longer be undervalued and the A’s will end up at an extreme financial disadvantage once again.

That, to me, is what makes the end of the movie so bittersweet. The vast inequality Beane is tackling can only be surmounted with the occasional extraordinary insight—and then only briefly. Before long that insight will be co-opted; one of the wealthy, privileged teams will use it to win the World Series; and the A’s will be back where they started. As unromantic as Moneyball might be, it doesn’t really have the stomach to swallow that bitter truth. Maybe it’s more of a true baseball movie than I thought.