October 3, 2011

Moneyball (2011)

of a pumpkinIt is pretty fitting we just recently saw what was perhaps the greatest night in modern MLB history a few nights ago because Moneyball, the film, directed by Bennett Miller, based on the book, written by Michael Lewis, that depicted the revolution of baseball, was in full effect that glorious night.

For those who don't know, four teams played for their playoff lives the night of September 28th, and three of them fought to the very end, all with different results. But all to the enjoyment of the sports fan world, even those who don't follow baseball.

In the end, the lowly Orioles, with a budget of $85 million, 15 levels below their opponent, the Red Sox, came from behind to finish off the Red Sox 4-3, despite being behind the entire game. The 90 win, but still 2nd/3rd in the AL East Tampa Bay Rays, with the second lowest budget in baseball went up against the juggernaut of money spending that is the New York Yankees ($202 million to Tampa's $41) and won 8-7 in 12 innings, after being down 7-0.

With the Red Sox loss and the Rays win, the Red Sox, an early favorite to go all the way, was bounced from the playoffs (with 90 wins, mind you. . .not too shabby) and the Rays, putting well over a hundred million dollars less into its roster, moved on to face the Texas Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.

And while money did serve its purpose for the Yankees (they won their division handily), money couldn't save the Red Sox, who lost when it really mattered, and the lucrative contracts of so-called 'star' players, like ex-Ray Carl Crawford, who, naturally, abandoned the Rays for more money, came up way short in crunch time.

In the end, skill and team chemistry meant more then throwing money at a problem and hoping it works. For the second year in a row, despite the salary boom over division rival Tampa, Boston missed the playoffs for the second straight year while, surprise surprise, Tampa once again found themselves in the hunt for the second consecutive year.

Without Moneyball, the Rays last four years of existence wouldn't be possible. A tremendously awful team who averaged close to 100 losses a year for it's first nine seasons, smart ownership and smart, Moneyball tactics bought Tampa Bay real PLAYERS. Not STAR players, but players who could play. And since 2008, the Rays, placed in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox, have won two division titles, beaten the Red Sox in the playoffs, made the playoffs three out of four times, and been to the World Series.

Moneyball, the movie (and, of course, the book), depicts what started it all: the use of sabermetrics, advanced statistics, mathematical algorithms, and a change in clubhouse philosophy, to grind out wins (not simply buy them, though, in fact, there is an equation for how much a team spends per win).

The book, written by Michael Lewis, goes into a lot more detail on the technical side as the book has very little dramatic value. At best, it is a history book with impressive results and fascinating insights. The movie remains faithful to the book's look at the effects it had on baseball on a whole, and adds necessary dramatic license to spice things up.

There aren't too many complaints about the film but of the few I've read the complaint seems to be that the film breezes through the complex concepts Lewis brings up in his book and focuses on making things more exciting.

And I will grant that the film is manipulative. For example, I saw the Oakland A's as described in this story (the film focuses on GM Billy Beane and his unorthodox attempt to make the low-budgeted and starless Oakland A's winners by evaluating talent differently through the previously mentioned stat hunting) and watched them, live, as they tore apart the all-time MLB winning streak. Then, I was in awe. But during my viewing of the film, I was in tears.

So yes, you can see some liberties being taken. But to me, these are NECESSARY changes. Because the film actually does focus on how sabermetrics work but doesn't make the film just about numbers. Frankly, you can get away with math in a book because the people reading it likely WANT to read it. But place it on a movie screen and expect people to 'feel good' about adding and dividing. . .I don't think so.

So the dramatic angles are needed and, frankly, wanted. But, even with a 'story' surrounding the core concepts of the book, the wrong actor could have made this a boring affair (which, also I've read, many people think Moneyball is anyways). Brad Pitt, who shockingly is NOT a box office attraction (he has a number of high grossing films to his credit but he is either the secondary-star or the major successes have occurred relatively recently) brings his actorly qualities to the proceedings (people forget that Brad Pitt is a two-time Oscar nominee) and adds a little George Clooney to the flick by providing an epic charisma that, frankly, he hasn't displayed too often.

While Pitt has always been a better actor then Clooney, Clooney was able to command those Ocean films and make Pitt a co-star because he had the stigma that he owned the room. Pitt borrows that from Clooney and completely commands Moneyball. Besides being, well, Brad Pitt, the love of all ladies, Pitt just wants you to believe in his character and completely embodies Billy Beane.

This may not be as complex a performance as 12 Monkeys, Kalifornia, Fight Club, or Benjamin Button, but it is the most convincing and chameleon like I've seen from the actor. If he wins the Oscar for this, and I think he will (there is a Sandra Bullock-The Blind Side quality to his performance and the momentum in the press that makes it seem like a certainty), I wouldn't be upset. Has he ACTED better? Yes. But has he commanded the screen better and completely enveloped a role better? No. To me, these are two different, but very important things that aren't necessarily mutually exclusive but CAN, if separated, derail a film.

*note: I make this argument for Russell Crowe's Oscar winning performance in Gladiator. Was it Crowe's most complex role? No. But it is most certainly the most commanding role Crowe has ever done, completely winning over the audience and demanding almost three complete hours of your attention. The same could be said for Tom Hank's Oscar nominated performance in Cast Away.

Praise also has to go to Jonah Hill who I never thought could be serious enough to act with an A-Lister like Pitt. But his chemistry with him is incredible and entirely believable (and, to be honest, Hill doesn't have to stretch too much here. He is still funny but manages to be funny without being so caustic and severe).

The casting department does a wonderful job of populating the Oakland A's scouts, coaching staff, and players with mostly no-names though, at times, you look at the actors playing a true historical figure, Carlos Pena for example, and you go 'that is supposed to be Carlos Pena?'

I wouldn't say the film is only worth seeing because of Pitt because, on it's own, the elements of storytelling, acting, editing, directing, etc all seem to make sense and flow very well. But I can't imagine this movie WITHOUT Pitt so I can say that without his performance, the film would, indeed, be lost.

If you want to see a vague look at history but also be enraptured in a true tour de force performance and  don't mind shedding a few tears, then go watch Moneyball. Pitt alone is worth the price of admission.


  1. Excellent points about the film (though, I didn't read the book). I figured you'd expertly focus on the sports angle, but you also did the movie portion justice. Fine review.

  2. It may not feel quite like the classic baseball movie others have achieved, but it's certainly pleasant enough to be enjoyable even by non-sports fan, and features great performances from Hill and Pitt. Good review. Check out mine when you get a chance.


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