This review contains spoilers for historical events. If you don’t know how “Moneyball” ends already and don’t want to know, do not read further.
People who know baseball will have a very different experience watching “Moneyball” than the people who don’t. The film, an adaptation of a revolutionary non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, recreates the events of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season. Within the film, the A’s accomplishments in ’02, engineered by their iconoclastic general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), are treated as a near-mythic triumph of baseball’s David over its collective Goliaths. Outside the film, as baseball fans know, the real story is a little bit different.
Consider this scene early in the film. Beane is in Cleveland during the off-season looking to acquire players. The A’s had a great year in 2001, but they lost three of their biggest stars — Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon — because they couldn’t afford to pay their free agent contracts. Beane is scrambling. In Cleveland, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young assistant to Cleveland’s general manager with new ideas about evaluating talent based on statistics rather than instinct. He tells Beane he should be glad the Athletics lost Damon, explaining how he’s not worth the salary the Red Sox are going to pay him. They can find better deals on talent elsewhere, Brand promises.
The matter is dropped, and Brand joins the staff of the Athletics. His beliefs are implicitly validated. If you didn’t know baseball, you would have to assume he was right about Johnny Damon. But since leaving the Athletics, Damon’s won two World Series. The A’s have won zero. In Game 4 of the 2009 Fall Classic, Damon got on base with two outs in the top of the ninth, stole two bases on a single pitch, and ignited a game-winning rally. Was he really that overvalued?
“Moneyball,” directed by Bennett Miller, is a fun movie. That fact alone in and of itself is something of an achievement, since Lewis’ book was a fascinating but dry tome about the origins and history of statistical analysis in sports. The film ditches most of the history for a straight and effective underdog story. It makes sense: Beane, bucking 100 years of tradition and struggling with a microscopic budget, fielded a team that was in Brand’s words from the “island of misfit toys,” also-rans, has-beens, and never-wases undervalued by the rest of baseball and, thus, affordable. Pitt is in full movie star mode guiding us on this journey; he shines brightly and, given that the film is the story of a baseball team that succeeds without the benefit of star players, somewhat ironically. Hill is quietly hilarious as Brand, deliciously uncomfortable as the lone intellectual in the locker room. The film’s screenplay was co-written by Aaron Sorkin, and like Sorkin’s Oscar-winning work on “The Social Network,” it is about a bunch of nerds beating a bunch of jocks at their own game.
As a baseball lover and an admirer of Lewis’ book, I always knew where the story was going. I kept hoping for something about the film to surprise me. Very little did. Beane himself is a charismatic figure — how could he not be when he’s played by Brad PItt — but he’s little more than his drive to win. He has no friends and almost no social life. He shares one scene with an ex-wife (Robin Wright) and a few with an adorably shy daughter (Kerris Dorsey). Otherwise, he’s kind of a cagey dude. Beane considers himself a gambler; at one point, he compares himself to a card counter flipping the odds at a casino. Maybe it’s no surprise then that he never really lets the film behind his poker face.
The focus instead is really on the team and the statistical revolution in baseball that they inspired. It’s well-created but, at least for me, predictable. I haven’t even mentioned Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Athletics manager Art Howe, primarily because for maybe the first time in his career, Hoffman gives a performance that isn’t worth mentioning. Beane and Brand’s system doesn’t put a lot of value on managers, and neither does the movie.
The only moments that really impressed me about “Moneyball” came near the end. Things build, as they must, to a big game. Things end, as they must, in triumph. But then Beane and Brand share a moment that puts things in much needed perspective: Beane reminds his partner that their dramatic victory ultimately means nothing. They haven’t won the World Series yet, and they won’t either. That’s when the movie finally acknowledges the disconnect between history and the film’s rose-colored reenactment. A long epilogue follows, throwing more and more cold water on the Athletics’ parade. All the romance and magic of baseball (and baseball movies) collides head on with the harsh realities of Beane’s moneyball approach, and a slight film gains some much needed depth.