I’m no jock, but that hasn’t stopped me from being a sucker for sports movies. I played a bit of soccer as a kid, but you’d be hard-pressed to find me in a group huddle, ready to employ the super-secret play and score that game-winning point. I never had to stare down an opponent whom I’d been feuding with for years and prove my mettle. I didn’t have a coach who inspired me both on and off the field. He was just that nice guy who paid for the pizza party at the end of the season. Hell, I didn’t even know how to pick my number for the team jerseys. I picked number one, like an idiot. Number one is for the keeper. So dumb. Sports were not my thing. Sports movies, on the other hand, I adore.
My enjoyment of sports movies is surprisingly fluid. I don’t have a favorite and since many of them follow a familiar pattern, it doesn’t matter whether the sport in question is boxing, football, hockey, karate/mixed martial arts, horse racing, basketball, or what-have-you. The effort, whether by an individual or a team striving to achieve something special, is why I’m there. I get choked up just watching the training montage from the first Rocky movie on YouTube. That's the effect these movies have on me. Baseball movies are no exception. I find Major League to be hilarious. The Natural is magical. Eight Men Out is devastating and tragic. A League of their Own is rich and heartfelt. The Bad News Bears is rude, crude, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Sandlot is nostalgia-personified. These movies have major similarities and differences. Most end with a big game, but not all. In some cases, the team wins; others, they lose. The one thing that remains a constant is that a lot of the action stays on the field, but what about the action off the field? What about the people who put the teams together? How do they do it? What does it cost? Maybe you’ve never even questioned how or why the players are on the field. Maybe you just want to get your beer, your hot dog, a big pretzel, and stay sharp so you don’t get beaned by a foul ball. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011) takes a subject that has no business being exciting and makes it just as compelling as the bottom of the ninth at the final game of the World Series.
That’s not to say Moneyball doesn’t indulge in your regularly-scheduled baseball movie programming like spring training, montages, and “big game” moments. What makes this one unique is how we’re introduced to a world only hinted at in other baseball flicks. Sure, the owner or the manager shows up, often chewing on a big fat cigar and constantly cutting costs, causing the players to suffer but power through nonetheless. We never get to see the inner-workings of what it’s like to run and maintain a professional baseball team. If you think that sounds boring, you could be right if it weren’t for the writing by Oscar winners Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. When you’ve got those guys around to bring a story to life, I think you’re in good hands. Adapted from Michael Lewis’ book and Stan Chervin’s story, Moneyball explores the new direction the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics took in 2002 after losing to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. There’s an immediate sympathy for the A’s as the budget the team has to work with is compared to the one the Yankees have. Yankees: $114, 457, 768 vs. Oakland A’s: $39, 722, 689. Classic underdog setup.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the GM and a failed professional ball player himself. He is something of an anomaly in the business since unlike the other general managers, he actually played the game. He realizes something has to change as he loses his best players to free agency and he’s unable to get more money to spend on replacing them. He takes meetings, ostensibly with hat in hand, to try and snag what little talent he can afford. In Cleveland, after a frustrating back and forth with the Indians’ GM, Mark Shapiro, he notices a quiet young man in the corner who seems to have a strong influence on who should and should not be traded. Finding him at his cubicle, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), special assistant to Shapiro. He mostly does player analysis and when pressed for the reason why Mark listens to him, he assumes a wonderfully conspiratorial air as he doesn’t seem to want to speak about such things in public. In the much more private parking deck, Brand explains his unpopular philosophy that through mathematics and statistics it’s possible to build a championship team; not with superstar players, but players whom the league undervalues. As he puts it, “an island of misfit toys.” There’s a reason Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Captain Raymond Holt considers Moneyball his favorite movie.
Beane “buys” Brand from the Indians and they set to work creating a baseball roster that receives immediate pushback from both the scouts and the A’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It’s a bit of a plot contrivance that Billy and Peter appear to be concealing the way they’re assembling the team from the rest of the organization but movies do need conflict and the frustrations both sides feel are very real. Just imagine working with people who are constantly making decisions you don’t agree with while they too believe your decisions are wrong. Most movies have “movie moments,” even in dramas and historical biographies that portray real people. Characters yell and scream. They get into arguments that no relationship could ever recover from. Here, there are disagreements, tense conversations, even a curse word or two, but this is a business and these people have to work together whether they like it or not. It’s an extraordinary balance between dramatic movie acting and real people just talking.
Jumping to the end so I can get into the nitty gritty of the film, it works. Through perseverance and hard-fought maneuvering, Beane and Brand get the team they want on the field and although they don’t go all the way, the team shocks the industry by breaking a league record no one thought was possible. It’s both satisfying and bittersweet.
In Moneyball, the subject of confidence is brought up many times. A scout remarks that one player has “an ugly girlfriend,” meaning no confidence. The movie centers around Billy, but it’s also a nuanced portrait of Peter Brand’s journey. At this point in his career, Jonah Hill was a major player in the Judd Apatow stable. He was headlining his own films like Cyrus and Get Him to the Greek while providing very funny supporting bits in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Funny People. Moneyball would either propel him to the next level as an actor or send him scurrying back to the safety of purely comedic parts. He nails his role here as a soft-spoken, intelligent, meek, and socially-awkward math geek. Through his relationship with Billy, who is brimming with self-assurance and bravado, he gains confidence in what he does and who he is. There’s no scene where some guy who’s been harassing him the whole movie gets his comeuppance or a moment where Peter finally chats up the pretty girl he’s been pining for. It’s a subtle change where Brand learns to assert himself and believe that what he’s doing isn’t wrong.
The scenes between Pitt and Hill are electric. There’s a chemistry there that’s undeniable. As a movie duo, they’re pitch-perfect. It’s a combination of street smarts and fancy book learning. Brand handles the math; Billy handles the business side. Most of the film’s best scenes are just the two of them discussing which players to trade and which ones to go after. Beane makes bold decisions while Brand tries to remain cautious, but they respect each other. They’re also quite funny as an odd couple. This movie contains one of the great ‘awkward white guy hand slaps.’ Another scene is very amusing when Peter throws a ball at Billy, expecting him to catch it but instead scares the hell out of him. It’s a wonderfully observed bit of friendship. There’s an intensity to their relationship as well. Billy tells Peter that he should learn how to cut players, to which Peter replies that he’d never need to learn that. Billy disagrees and gives him a hard lesson. Later, in an amazing scene that plays out in one take, Peter has to inform a star player that he’s been traded to the Detroit Tigers. Unlike other films, this movie has a different kind of tension (whether or not a GM will agree to a trade), but this is a suspenseful scene since you’re not certain how the player will react. There’s a refusal to engage in unnecessary drama. Scenes play out as they would in reality, or at least this version of reality.
The authenticity of the scout meetings feels genuine. This is likely due to the fact that some of the scouts seated at the table are, in fact, real baseball scouts. They mix in well with some of the best character actors around, including Jack McGee (always welcome as a working-class guy in films stretching back to The Hidden, Backdraft, Basic Instinct, and his meatier role in The Fighter), Nick Searcy (Justified and a fun turn in 11/22/63), Glenn Morshower (a Michael Bay favorite), and the always great Brent Jennings (Witness, Life “Shut your mouth and your fat ass, boy!”, and his amazing scene in Red Heat). Jennings has a particularly funny bit when Pitt comes to recruit Chris Pratt, in the role for which he lost all of that Parks and Rec weight, and Pitt says playing first base isn’t hard.
Jennings responds, “It’s incredibly hard.”
However, the finest performance from a scout is Ken Medlock as head scout Grady Fuson. Medlock was a minor league player and also served the film as a technical advisor. His scenes with Pitt are outstanding. He’s obviously angry at Billy’s wildly unorthodox approach and he insists that the art of baseball scouting requires experience and an eye for talent. The final showdown between the two feels absolutely real. No one is screaming. There isn’t a barrage of bad language. Just two men having a heated discussion. The argument reaches a natural conclusion when Grady says “fuck you” to Billy, officially getting himself fired.
Of course, any mention of character actors must include Philip Seymour Hoffman, returning to work with Miller again after his Oscar-winning work in Capote. Although the real Art Howe disapproved of the actor’s portrayal, Hoffman gives the character a grouchy, stern quality. A manager under constant strain due to a limited one-year contract. You can see the anger and frustration bubbling under the surface. His feud with Pitt provides a great contrast to the way Brand and Beane work together. It still seems unlikely that Beane wouldn’t have talked over what he was up to with the team manager, but it keeps things interesting. In what might be the most subtle acting I’ve ever seen, Howe is informed that his best players have been traded. The way Philip Seymour Hoffman just stands there, staring, without moving or saying anything, speaks volumes.
Bennett Miller has never been a flashy director but he proves himself adept at presenting sports movie tropes. The A’s are portrayed as underdogs, but there’s still some wonderful pomp and circumstance to the first game of the season. They’re a major league club and the little touches, like David Justice (Stephen Bishop) being shocked that he has to pay for soda, show the difference between the rich teams and the not-so-rich teams. A team that can spend almost 40 million dollars on their talent roster is not on poverty row. They’re just less well-off than others.
Never fear, baseball movie fans, because there’s still a climactic “big game” scene. Blowing an eleven-to-nothing lead, Billy, who never watches or attends games due to his own superstitions about being a jinx, retreats to the gym. Chris Pratt steps up to the plate and in a moment that feels like it was written for the movie but really did happen, hits a home run. Even if the movie doesn’t want to follow your average baseball movie beats, it still gets the chance to indulge in the quintessential “fans bursting into applause and players crowding home plate” cliche. Real footage of that night is mixed with the fictionalized material. The scene cuts away from the wild party to Billy, sitting alone in the gym, silently celebrating. I will admit that I stole a move from Pitt in this scene. I was in A Few Good Men, written by Aaron Sorkin coincidentally, at a local theatre and after we won the case, I improvised a bit where I turned away from the audience and leaned against the judge’s bench. Pitt turns away from the camera and leans onto a weight machine. Just a little indulgence. Thanks Brad.
The movie garnered six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but Miller missed out on a Best Director nod. This is likely due to the movie functioning more as a presentation of the Oscar-nominated script and not a showcase for direction. Still, the Oscar-nominated work by editor Christopher Tellefsen is mighty impressive here. Tellefsen, who also edited Capote and has some outstanding credits, both indie and studio (Kids, Gummo, Analyze This, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon), finds brilliant ways to shake up a straight-forward narrative. The best example is the editing of Peter Brand’s arrival at his new job in Oakland and Beane being presented with the player analyses. Instead of playing out as: Peter goes to work, prints out his pages, then shows them to Billy, the film cuts back and forth between his arrival, analysis, and conversation with Beane. This is sharp, clever editing that keeps the movie flowing while not distracting from the writing. Flashbacks to Billy’s failed baseball career are peppered throughout the film, slowly revealing the character’s backstory. Montages are a staple of sports movies and both the montage where Billy and Peter explain the new philosophy to the team and the riveting winning-streak where the A’s win 19 games in a row are excellent. Accompanied by Mychael Danna’s bell-centric and somber, yet driving score, scenes of actual baseball play out well, making this much more than an ‘inside baseball’ movie.
A major what-if about the film is the version Steven Soderbergh, the original director, was planning. He’d already begun interviewing former baseball players and was just days away from principal photography when he was removed from the project. His plan, from what he’s said in subsequent interviews, was to make an incredibly fun movie. Fun movies are always...fun, but although this is just conjecture, it seems as though he didn’t believe the behind-the-scenes baseball stuff would interest an audience enough through a straight-forward telling. Just my guess. Aaron Sorkin was brought in to rewrite Steven Zaillian’s adaptation, which Sorkin claimed was already great. Either way, the result is a fantastic screenplay about a subject that shouldn’t be so much fun to watch and listen to.
Brad Pitt was attached to the project from the beginning and brings movie star charisma to a non-famous person who is part of a famous organization. There’s a second chance aspect at play here as we’re shown his once-promising baseball career crumble. Billy is single-minded in his purpose. When Art Howe is credited with the team’s success, he doesn’t even flinch. The only things that appear to bother him are losing and making certain he can provide for his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), a question he shrugs off when pressed. He’s quite funny in a scene where he’s trying to tolerate his ex-wife (Robin Wright)’s hippie dippy husband, played by Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze. Aaron Sorkin never met a scene that couldn’t be played without a looooonnnnggg conversation taking place, but there are sharp moments here that don’t require a great deal of dialogue. An almost meta-scene occurs when Beane is giving a pep talk to the team. Hundreds of sports movies have this moment, often with the camera panning across the determined players and the music swelling. Here, Billy is just a regular guy trying to be inspirational, off-the-cuff. It’s short and to the point and he obviously didn’t prepare it.
The song that Billy listens to at the end of the film has always been enigmatic for me. His daughter recorded a song (which was written after the time the movie takes place) for him and at the end of it, she sings, “You’re a loser, dad. So just enjoy the show.” Taken literally, this seems awful. Of course, it’s his daughter and their relationship is quirky and self-deprecating, so we know she’s not being mean. Trivia reveals that the original song to be used would have been Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” On-the-nose, yes, but that would have made a lot more sense. Still, the song is fine and ends the movie on a sweet, if slightly off-note.
Moneyball is a great movie that contains very few “movie moments.” It might be a perfect representation of truth, presented as fiction, presented in realistic terms.