...shining light on the media, one review at a time
In a world that groups people as losers or winners, the sports business is the burning center, where the rapidity and force of this labeling is quadrupled. As a result, winning tends to become everything to those trying to make a living in the sports industry. Wins equal money, and money is the true mark of a winner. Or is it? Moneyball takes a swing at this assumption in a story based on true events that revolutionized the game of baseball.
The film’s attempt to redefine winning and what is important in life is admirable, but the results are not. Inappropriate behavior, plenty of offensive language, and a disappointing thematic climax undermine the positive elements of the movie. In addition, Moneyball sets itself up as a story of a hero, or at least someone who does something extraordinary and meaningful against all odds. Yet, despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, the movie strikes out on this score as well, showcasing only a mildly interesting antihero who knows how to spot genius and ride its coattails.
Billy Beane wants to win. He needs to win. In that, he certainly isn’t alone. The other baseball GMs are all dedicated to winning—their jobs depend on it. The difference is that they have a lot more money to work with. A lack of funds leaves Billy’s Oakland A’s unable to sign the best players and, when one of their players does show some talent, their roster is immediately gutted by the higher-paying teams.
Even with his salary constraints, Billy is a skilled enough GM to make something of his limited resources, and his team has a decent 2001 season. Billy knows all too well that people, and especially Billy himself, are quick to forget how many games a team won during the season if they lose the last one. For Billy, the goal is nothing short of winning the World Series, but the A’s future looks more dismal than ever with their star lineup getting lured away by bigger salaries.
Fed up with the gutting and losing, Billy is ready to try something drastic to turn his team around. A drastic option is what he encounters when he meets Peter Brand, who has an underappreciated office job with another team. A Yale economics grad, Peter introduces Billy to the idea of sabermetrics—a mathematical approach to valuing ball players that focuses on specific statistics (in this case, often overlooked stats like walks and getting on base), rather than more traditional scouting methods. Initially, Billy dismisses Peter and his wild theories like other GMs before him. After all, what does a kid with no baseball experience know about assembling a winning team?
But Billy himself was drafted when he was young and promised stardom that he never lived up to, as he choked on the field and soon gave up his player status to become a scout. With the raw taste of traditional scouting’s failure in his mouth, Billy decides there may be something to Peter’s different approach. Ever impulsive, Billy quickly hires Peter as his Assistant GM, and the two begin a journey that changes not only the A’s, but Major League Baseball.
The rise of sabermetrics is an interesting story, but one can’t help but wonder while watching Moneyball, whose story is it really? In the movie, Billy doesn’t invent any of the sabermetrics approach himself, but rather learns it all from Peter, the one who actually applies sabermetrics to building the A’s team. We learn as the story progresses that even Peter didn’t come up with the mathematical system, but that he got it from the books of Bill James, a statistician who was the real pioneer of sabermetrics in baseball.
So why did the filmmakers think that Billy Beane was a better focus for a story than the other men more responsible for the revolution of the sport? Let’s see, Billy is funny, charming, good-looking. Oh, wait—that’s Brad Pitt. Yet even Pitt’s star power isn’t enough to disguise the ironic fact that while Moneyball shows Art Howe, the A’s manager, unfairly getting credit for Billy’s achievement, the film is actually guilty of the very same misdeed, lifting up Billy as a hero that, in this movie, he is not.
Perhaps the film’s creators thought that Billy would be the best focus because he has the most at stake—a job, reputation, close proximity to family. Maybe so, but he also deserves the least credit and seemingly has the least remarkable story of the three men responsible for instigating the change to the sport. This sets up a recurring distraction from the central story, as one can’t help but be drawn to the more amazing and admirable tales that surround Billy.
How about the naïve Peter, who sees the brilliance of Bill James’s ideas and pioneers the application of the technique, even when his bosses are laughing at him? Why does this young man—who is not athletic, nor power-hungry, nor greedy—care so much about baseball and Billy? And what about Bill James, a man who published works of statistical genius about America’s favorite sport while working as a security guard at a factory? His story of rise from a pork and beans cannery to being hired by the Boston Red Sox and named one of the 100 most influential people in the world sounds as if it were created for the big screen.
But in Moneyball, we have the tale of Billy Beane, which not only leaves more to be desired dramatically, but also morally. The movie version of Billy is a man who is far from a good example of leadership or most other positive traits that one would expect to see in a worthy hero. Billy is polite enough when it serves his oft-manipulative purposes, but he has a volatile temper that leads to many overturned tables and desks, thrown objects, smashed radios and the like. He’s also the first to spew out foul language at others when he deems it appropriate.
Billy’s most commendable moments come in the scenes with his daughter, Casey. As a divorced dad, Billy cares deeply for his daughter and takes an active interest in her life. He puts a priority on getting to know Casey and spending time with her, and he is clearly loving in his concern for her happiness and well-being.
[SPOILER WARNING] In the end, Casey is also the reason for Billy’s most noble act of all, as he turns down a multi-million dollar offer to be GM of the Boston Red Sox in order to stay near Casey, who mostly lives with her remarried mother. This relationship between Billy and Casey gives Billy’s character much-needed depth and sympathetic interest.
The filmmakers try to create additional layers thematically by exploring the concept of winning and losing. Their effort pays off in part by giving the story a foundation and depth that it would be lost without, but the culmination of this theme is so anti-climactic that it sucks the life out of the ending for anyone who looks past the surface.
[SPOILER WARNING] The moment we’re waiting for comes after the A’s lose in an elimination game, ending a season in which the team set a record for 20 wins in a row, using the sabermetric system. Most people around Billy are astounded at how well the A’s did and, because of the team’s success, are starting to take sabermetrics seriously. Billy, however, is as upset as ever that his team still failed to make it to, and win, the World Series. Showing his change as a character, Billy explains to Peter that his desire is no longer to win just for winning’s sake or even to get a championship ring. Rather, he wants the wins to “mean something” by enabling him to “change the game”—a goal he believes will only be accomplished by getting the championship. Peter finds a way to poignantly help Billy see that he has metaphorically “hit a home run” and not even realized it.
While this scene is touching and one of the best of the film, it serves only to highlight the flaws in the story and those that still remain in Billy’s worldview. It’s good that Billy has moved away from the idea that winning is everything, but he is now under the harmful delusion that an accomplishment will give his life meaning and make winning somehow worth more. Sadly, this achievement that Billy is looking to for so much is actually not even primarily his, but belongs more to Peter and Bill James. Even more depressing is the reality that the supposedly tremendous accomplishment won’t secure a better future for the A’s, as all their competitors begin to structure their own teams on the A’s model and can, therefore, directly compete.
The concept and moral problems with this film are a particular letdown because it is filled with many gifted actors. In an impressive performance, Brad Pitt manages to give the character of Billy Beane nuances and emotional interest that would not have been present if not for his effort. Jonah Hill, however, snags the better character in Peter Brand and applies stellar acting skills to make the most of the match. Other powerhouse actors, piled up in almost amusingly small roles, join Hill in stealing scenes from Pitt. These actors—including Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Arliss Howard—lend a delightful reality and dramatic impact to even very brief scenes.
Yet the exceptional performances from the cast aren’t enough to save the film from the story problems and a few other beginner-level mistakes (changing perspective for a scene midway through the film, keeping poor quality shots for experimentation’s sake, etc.), which are so surprising to find in a film of otherwise strong production values.
A lot of elements in this film are like watching a team of all-stars go out and play like little leaguers. Moneyball could’ve been far better if the filmmakers had created a better game plan, kept it clean, and played by the rules. Sports metaphors aside, there is a lesson in all this: “Based on a true story” offers no guarantees that the filmmakers picked the right story to tell or the right way to tell it.
Check out these movies instead:
Facing the Giants (Carmel Entertainment, 2006)
The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend (Campbell-Stone Media, 1990)
Reggie’s Prayer (Oregon Pacific Pictures, 1996)