Film Review – Moneyball
Moneyball (2011) is a sports film…well…not really. Yes, it’s based around baseball, but it’s not necessarily about the sport itself. It’s more about what goes on behind the scenes: what happens behind closed doors amongst the people who decide which players will go out and play on the field. We see the wheeling and dealing of the upper management, between the owners, general managers, and coaches, and how they work (or don’t work) together to create a winning ball club. Centered on the Oakland Athletics during the summer of 2002, the film deals with a manager who, with the loss of some key players and with very little money to work with, has to come up with a new scheme to save the team and his own job. It’s an underdog story, but told through a different perspective.
To start off, the sports fan in me had trouble watching a movie that was rooting for the Oakland A’s. I’m from Seattle, and for the longest time have been a fan of the Seattle Mariners. The A’s play in the same division as they do, and I hurt a little when the film so clearly showed the amazing run the A’s had during the 2002 season. It’s certainly an interesting story, though. At the beginning of the year, the A’s lost key members of their ball club, including Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, to bigger teams with bigger wallets. To put it into perspective, that year the New York Yankees had over $100 million to spend on their players’ salaries, and the A’s only had about $39 million. This leaves the team’s general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), in a tight situation. His best players are gone, and he doesn’t have the kind of money it would take to replace them. Billy knows that he needs to produce a winning ball club or else his own job is in jeopardy, so what could he possibly use to put the team on a winning role?
Economics. With financial constraints handcuffing him from adding big names to the roster, Billy decides to think more economically, and build his team around his budget. Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a fresh-faced graduate from Yale with a degree in economics. Together, Billy and Peter devise a plan in which they pick up lesser-known players who can still produce the same results as one or two superstars. Take this, for example: if you had one player who hit 30 home runs, another who hit 20, and another who hit 14, that’s 64 total. Instead of going for the big, expensive players who can get big numbers, take that 64 and divide by three, and you’d get 24 home runs a piece from smaller, cheaper players. All math. Using this basic equation, Billy and Peter make decisions that go against the general ideas of baseball scouting, flying in the face of many of the other members of the organization, including that of the A’s head coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It’s a fascinating and unique way of determining who to take or who to drop, and in theory should get them into the playoffs. But theories can only go so far, and what happens in reality is a major risk that Billy takes upon himself.
Along with Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin had a hand in writing the screenplay, and that comes as no surprise. The dialogue in the film is brisk and sharp, highly reminiscent of his other work. When you think about it, there are a lot of similarities between this and The Social Network (2010) in terms of how dialogue is used. Both main characters in both films use dialogue to help them map out their strategies on becoming successful in their respective fields, and both are able to talk their way in to and out of situations for their own benefits. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Billy initiates a three-to-four-way business call in which he contacts a number of different teams in an attempt to acquire a certain player. The way he very tactically sets up each phone call and executes his moves is like that of a chess player, and I was impressed with how the dialogue keeps us knowledgeable as to what is happening, even though everything seems to be moving at 100 miles an hour.
Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill both do fine jobs in their performances. Pitt has been a fine actor for a long time, and I think in the last couple of years he has really become better rounded as a performer, and not just a movie star. His face has become a little aged, his experience showing through his good looks. I mean this as a compliment; his look has become that of person who has gone through life and has become a bit wiser, allowing him to emote with more weight and substance. Of course, add that to his tremendous charm, and you have a performance that is both funny and effectively dramatic. His character is one who is continuously optimistic, and deep down knows that everything is on the line. Hill is very good with a more subtle, quite performance as Peter. He’s not outlandish or overbearing; he doesn’t reach for a laugh at all here. In fact, I think the way in which Jonah Hill gives Peter a more nebbish character trait is a good thing, and there a number of scenes in which he gets a laugh just out of his awkwardness with everyone else on the team. He knows what needs to get done to get results, but would rather have someone else tell a player that they’ve been cut from the team.
While I think that the direction by Bennett Miller, the dialogue, and the performances all around were well done, I do think the film has a number of issues that hold it back. One of the bigger gripes that I had was the fact that there wasn’t much development in any of the characters. All the performances were fine, but none of them felt multi-dimensional. Sure, we learn a little bit about Billy Beane’s past, how he was a promising baseball player in his youth, but how does that affect him in the present? He never attends a game in person, but why? Because he misses playing the game? Because he feels he jinxes the team by being there? That issue was never really laid out clearly. He has an ex-wife, Sharon (Robin Wright), and a young daughter who he seems to get along with, but that’s about it. We never learn more about Peter Brand, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Art Howe is reduced to a few scenes of disapproval and argument with Billy Beane. All of the characters were flat; they were the exact same people at the end of the movie as they were from the beginning. Character development is not necessarily a requirement of a good movie, but I think this particular film would have benefited from that.
That’s not to say that Moneyball is a bad film, because it isn’t. It’s an entertaining story that has a number of good laughs with fine acting all around. The pacing was good, the cinematography fine; overall it was a well made movie. If you are a sports fan, I think that you’ll enjoy this, as there a number of recognizable names and faces throughout. Cut scenes show actual past games highlighting the Athletics’ big wins during that season, and any person who follows that team will smile in reliving those great moments. I just wonder why I felt a kind of emptiness after walking out of the film. We get to take a look at how this general manager created a new way of putting a team together, but I didn’t quite feel the emotional heft that usually comes from other underdog stories. I think if the characters were less steadfast, less confident with the kind of decisions they were making, it would have had the kind of emotional pull that could have put the film at a higher place.
Final Grade: B