Good sports movies that become great sports movies involve a deeply fascinating character study as much as they involve the formula underdogs, montages, and ESPN-worthy highlights. For as much as we all love the shower of sparks at the end of The Natural with Robert Redford, it’s the mysterious and mythological origin of Roy Hobbs that strikes a chord and makes a movie that’s bigger than the final moment. The scenes out of the ring in Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Hurricane do more for their movies than the punches and ten-counts. Sure enough, the stereotypical “big game” ending is something every great sports movie needs in its formula. Our main characters don’t always have to win (Friday Night Lights and Rocky) but we, the audience, need that suspense, excitement, and culminating reward and payoff of all the hard work our beloved characters have gone through the 90 minutes before the “big game.”
What happens when a sports movie doesn’t exactly have a “big game” and doesn’t exactly follow the usual formula? That’s the challenge of Brad Pitt’s baseball film, Moneyball, from director Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher), based on the best-selling book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. You’re not following a player (kind of), you’re following a “suit.” You won’t get a “Gonna Fly Now” training montage (kind of), but you’ll get a history lesson and speedy slideshow on baseball statistics. You won’t get a “big game” (kind of), but you’ll get the suspense of a conference call or two. The “kind ofs” are thrown in there, because Moneyball is still a formulaic sports movie, but goes to great lengths to tell a different kind of story inside that formula.
The “suit” is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, who also bankrolled the movie as one of its producers), the general manager of the Oakland A’s of Major League Baseball. For those of you who don’t know your baseball, a general manager is the HR director of a team, in charge of hiring, firing, drafting, and trading talent. His A’s team is coming off of the 2001 American League playoff collapse of leading the vaunted New York Yankees two games to none on the verge of elimination and collapsing to lose three straight games and the series. Soon after, operating out of the small payroll of the Oakland market, the team gets gutted of its three best players moving on as free agents to teams that can pay them more.
Somehow, Billy has to field a competitive team in 2002 in a broken baseball system where big-market teams (New York and Boston) and player agents can bully, outbid, and out-buy everyone else. Disillusioned when he’s constantly bested in deals and trades, he quickly understands that he can’t win toe-to-toe this way with his low payroll. He also can’t operate in an old-fashioned system of talent scouting based on hunches, good looks, and beefcake potential.
Moneyball really sets out to show how the evils of big money have infected America’s pastime, especially because it’s a true story that is still going on ten years later. “Money buys the luxury to disregard what everyone else thinks” is a gem of a quote from a baseball owner to Billy. Like the big stack at a poker table, big baseball markets and teams have nearly bottomless resources to do as they please and buy as they please over the smaller market teams. Go look up the current baseball payrolls and put it next to the standings and you’ll see who’s on top on both lists.
To beat the system, Billy chooses the “adapt or die” route of unorthodox changes and a paradigm shift in the way he does business. He enlists Peter Brand (Jonah Hill’s composite character based on number-crunching exec Paul DePodesta), a lowly personnel assistant from the Cleveland Indians who specializes in statistics, to be his new assistant general manager. Brand, through mathematics and tireless film study, shows Billy how he can cheaply and efficiently create a patchwork team of statistically-sound, yet mishandled, castoff players (including a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Chris Pratt) that other teams don’t want. Embracing this change of thinking and evaluation, Billy puts the 2002 Oakland A’s team in the hands of odds and probabilities. If it works, this system can change the game entirely. If it doesn’t, it’s his job.
Moneyball is a glimpse at the man behind the perceived monster. In front of his players and in the public eye, Billy Beane keeps everything business and makes nothing personal. He avoids fraternizing with his players to make firing them someday easier and doesn’t even stay to watch the A’s games. However, in his solitude, he longs to maintain being an active dad to his daughter (Kerris Dorsey, later of Ray Donovan), follows the games incessantly on the radio in his car or in an empty gym, office, or stadium, and never got over his own failed bid as a big leaguer. Behind his calculated public persona, he’s still a flawed regular guy like the rest of us.
This Bennett Miller sports flick is a movie for a different kind of risk-taker. Many people in many professions take chances, but some risk-takers don’t have the gumption to stay around for the consequences, both good and bad. The really courageous people have the integrity to see those calculated risks through to the end. They are patient for the coming results, steadfast in their resolve and dedication to the path they choose, and are strong in the face of opposition, failure, and setbacks. Billy Beane personifies that type of leader.
By taking you inside the front office of baseball, Moneyball succeeds in telling a different kind of baseball story. The movie-going audience rarely sees this side of the sport and it’s fascinating to watch Oscar-winning screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) take us through it. Adapting Lewis’s novel, the duo received a very fitting Academy Award nomination and Bennett Miller was honored a Best Director nominee. All were excellent selections that year.
For those who are looking for a traditional sports movie and riveting baseball excitement, though, you might find Moneyball slow and lacking. A good chunk of time is spent showing Billy the former prospect in flashback and Billy the divorcee (to Robin Wright) and father out of the office. That either engages you or it doesn’t. Jonah Hill gets plenty of great scenes and moments, enough to score one of the film’s six Oscar nominations. However, Philip Seymour Hoffman, reunited with his Capote Oscar-winning director, is shamefully wasted as beleaguered manager Art Howe who doesn’t buy Beane’s system. He has little to do but mope, sport a potbelly, and rub a ballcap-head-tan.
Luckily, Brad Pitt is the battery power of this movie. He’s as compelling and dynamic here as he is in the tabloid headlines. As the ex-athlete and ultra-competitive Beane, we watch Pitt play an executive that favors chewing tobacco over cappuccino and exercise and workout wear over Armani suits. Through his Oscar-nominated performance, Moneyball has that outstanding character study that all great sports movies have to have. In a way, Moneyball feels like Jerry Maguire without the romantic comedy, where the smoothly-written business side of a sport trumps the game and players on the field. For those looking for a sports movie with a brain, that will impress you and spark your interest. If you need thrills and camaraderie, you’re going to have to look somewhere else.