by Eric D. Snider
Released: September 23, 2011
"Moneyball" lies at the intersection of math and baseball, where-- wait, come back! It isn't boring, I promise!
As it happens, the intersection of math and baseball is also the intersection of business and sports, two subjects that have often enthralled moviegoers with their tales of cutthroat competition and underdog victories. "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis' book about the 2002 Oakland A's, appears to be centered on statistics, but its real theme is good old-fashioned American resourcefulness.
Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the A's at a frustrating time. The 2001 season ended with Oakland competing with the New York Yankees -- or in other words, with $114 million competing with $439 million, the respective budgets of the teams. A rich franchise can afford to buy the best players in the league, to the detriment of the organizations with less available cash. "The game isn't fair," Billy says -- and he doesn't mean baseball.
The A's are losing three key players going into the 2002 season. Billy's front-office staff is trying to replace them the conventional way, looking to acquire players with the same skills, but they're shopping for steak on a hamburger budget. The solution comes when Billy meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with a degree in economics who's a proponent of a new theory in baseball analysis. He says many of the criteria used to pick "good" players are outdated or illogical, and that as a result a lot of guys with winning potential are undervalued. Even a low-budget team like the A's can afford such players, who can theoretically be turned into a winning squad.
For example, there's Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a catcher whose career is assumed to be over because his elbow is shot. As a batter, though, he has a great record of getting on base, and getting on base is how runs get scored. Billy, with Peter as his new adviser, proposes making Scott the first baseman. Has he played that position before? No. But the A's need a new player there, and Scott needs to be in the lineup so he can bat and get on base.
Most of the film, which was directed by Bennett Miller ("Capote"), takes place during the 2002 season, with Billy doggedly trying to prove to his skeptical staff and the ever-harping sports commentators that his unconventional system will work. He faces the worst opposition from Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the team manager, who makes the day-to-day lineup decisions and refuses to give Billy's insane ideas a chance.
You can see how this could be a uniquely compelling sports drama, despite the importance of number-crunching in the story. The screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian ("Gangs of New York"), with an overhaul by Aaron Sorkin, who worked the same kind of how-could-this-be-entertaining? magic with last year's "The Social Network." I don't know which writer is responsible for what, but Pitt, Hill, and the supporting players have plenty of zesty banter that more than adequately balances out the film's drier aspects.
It's hard to tell whether the movie was produced with baseball fans in mind. It's not a traditional sports movie. Though it does have some rousing sequences of on-field action and suspense, it's primarily a behind-the-scenes drama -- and a good one, maybe a better one that you'd expect. I'm not a big fan of baseball (or math, for that matter), but I enjoyed "Moneyball" as an engaging story of outside-the-box thinking. Even when innovators don't get the acclaim they deserve, it's rewarding to see them put their ingenuity into action.
Rated PG-13, two F-words
2 hrs., 13 min.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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