“Moneyball” Makes It Rain

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

I’ll be frank: I don’t like baseball. I never could understand why America is so enamored with this sport, much less how anyone can even stand to enjoy or even watch an entire game.

In spite of these reservations, I found myself eager to check out “Moneyball,” adapted from the Michael Lewis book of the same name. Though I was drawn mostly to the film’s cast, underdog story and the fact that Aaron Sorkin is one of the screenwriters, I hoped that I would leave the theater with some degree of appreciation for and a greater understanding of baseball. The film, which delivers a softer punch than it could have, succeeds more in the latter than the former.

“Moneyball” opens with a quote from Mickey Mantle, regarded by many to be one of the best center fielders of all time: “It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing your whole life.” His words highlight the problem that afflicts scouting systems when they look for the “best” players – the same problem that Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces when he attempts to build a competitive team.

At the dawn of the 2002 season, the A’s are in a dire situation. After the Yankees dismissed them from the American League Division Series, they have lost three key players, who left for bigger teams with deeper pockets. Consequently, Beane struggles to rebuild a team with a smaller budget compared to other teams.
After failing to acquire the players that he wants, Beane encounters Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a tubby Yale graduate who explains that his goal should be to buy not renowned players, but wins. In order to buy wins, he needs to buy runs. In other words, Beane should buy players who can get on base.

Impressed, Beane hires Brand as the A’s assistant general manager. Using unconventional statistic-driven methods, they buy a batch of players who are undervalued by other teams, much to the horror of everyone else, including the scouting staff and A’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Though met with much criticism and ridicule, Beane and Brand believe that, with the team they have, they can not only win, but also change the game.

The most important thing to keep in mind when regarding the film’s story is that it’s told through Beane’s perspective: it’s a character-driven narrative. For me, this exposed a maddening number of missed opportunities that would have made a much more dramatic and engrossing story.

Beane is a man who tries not to get close with the players and prefers not to watch any games. Thus, we never get to know any of the players and see very little of the games. As a result, we never really understand what the locker room chemistry is like, and our emotions are never fully engaged when footage of the games are shown.

Furthermore, the concept of Beane and Brand’s fascinating player-choosing philosophy – deemed “moneyball” by the press – is never fully explained, which is disappointing. We see the equations and the duo quickly generalize them, but those are as close as we get to the ideology. In addition, minor conflicts, like the relationship between Beane and Howe, are never really resolved.

However, what we do see is Beane’s human side. We realize that he was once a very promising player who turned down a full scholarship to Stanford in order to play in the Major League and ultimately failed, which explains his hatred of losing. We understand his vulnerability whenever he is in the presence of his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). If anything, “Moneyball” is a personal journey for us, though the recurring images of Beane sulking in his truck become wearisome after a while.

Director Bennett Miller, best known for “Capote,” tells the story extremely well. The transitions between past and present are implemented with ease and reveal what drives Beane’s faith in Brand’s unorthodox ideas. The use of archival footage, which depict the actual games, fit snugly into the story as it moves further into the A’s season.

With his boyish grins and drawls, Pitt is ever so charismatic. He delivers Sorkin’s bantering dialogue effortlessly, but what he conveys during his moments of moody silence exemplifies his acting abilities.
Hill, who steps out of his comfort zone to take a stab at a serious role for once, makes an impression. He appears to be quite comfortable alongside Pitt, and even manages to hold his own against the more experienced actor.

Other members of the cast have smaller roles, but do well overall. Hoffman’s somber expressions are sublime, and Dorsey typifies the ideal, supportive child that any parent would love to have. Though he isn’t on the screen that much, Chris Pratt shows us all we need to know about washout catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg through his facial expressions and movements.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister successfully conveys much emotion from such simple images. Beane is often shot alone with no one else in sight, and the camera switches between long shots to demonstrate the character’s isolation and extreme close-ups to reveal the deeper emotions at play.

I imagine that baseball fans, as well as those who read Lewis’ book, will love “Moneyball.” While I did come out of the theater with a deeper understanding of how baseball works, it didn’t inspire me in any way to appreciate the game itself. The film misses many opportunities that would have led me to enjoy it and possibly even baseball more. Nevertheless, its character-driven story is well told for what it is. In the meantime, I’ll just stick with football (and I’m not talking about the American one).

Rating: 4 out of 5