When Michael Lewis’ Moneyball came out in 2003 it immediately became a must read for baseball fans. Partly because Lewis is an excellent writer who knows how to tell a story, but mostly because in order to understand the unlikely success of the Oakland A’s of the early 2000s, baseball fans would need to understand the new method to the madness of scouting big league talent.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is an effortless and satisfying read.
Now we have the film – and it might just be even more rewarding.
Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, TV’s The West Wing), and starring Brad Pitt, Moneyball is a major accomplishment.
Much the way The Social Network took an unlikely subject matter and made it utterly compelling, Moneyball manages to make the sabermetric number crunching eureka of baseball scouting not only exciting, but metaphoric.
But make no mistake about it, while the source material was rich and handled masterfully by two world-class screenwriters and a sure handed Oscar nominated director, the star of Moneyball is Brad Pitt, an actor whose moment may have finally come.
Pitt has been a major star for so long we sort of take him for granted. I’ve always been a bit perplexed by his career, not quite sure why he hadn’t delivered more memorable leading man performances. I’d come to the conclusion that he was a somewhat limited actor who often found himself out in front of the machinery without the right engine.
This year, I’m happy to report I am now, finally, in the Pitt crew.
Earlier this year, Pitt delivered his best performance to date in Terrence Malik’s challenging and intensely thought-provoking The Tree of Life. It is a dark, brooding performance that displayed the actor’s newfound maturity. Gone was the boyish grin from Thelma and Louise and the affected pseudo machismo of The Fight Club.
Moneyball gives us the Brad Pitt I think we’ve all been waiting for. He is finally relaxed in front of the camera, telling a story that he trusts is worth your attention, trusting in himself that he is good enough to simply think the thoughts and say the words. And man is he good in this film.
Moneyball tells the story of how Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane radically bucked the conventional scouting system after his squad lost in the American League Championship series to the powerhouse New York Yankees.
A graphic on the screen informs us of the salary discrepancy between the two teams. New York went in to the 2001 season with a bloated $144 million payroll. The Oakland A’s were paying out just under $40m. The haves and the have-nots.
After that season the A’s lost three of their catalysts to free agency, basically knocking their team back to the level of non-contenders.
‘Beane’ tells his team of scouts in their winter strategy meeting “There are rich teams, there are poor teams, there’s 5o feet of crap, and then there’s us.”
So his scouts, all dyed in the wool baseball veterans, proceed to rattle off their list of top prospects, using all of the baseball vernacular associated (“five tool guy”). All stuff that makes ‘Beane’ roll his eyes. He’s heard it all before.
‘Beane’ was once the most highly sought after young prospect in the game. A “five tool” player who was sure to be a star. He could (1) hit for average, (2) for power, (3) had speed, (4) could field, and (5) had a great arm. All five tools. He was the New York Mets top draft pick in 1980. And he never lived up to the scouts’ expectations. They were wrong about Billy Beane.
Moneyball the book opens with this quote from Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly:
“Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.”
Moneyball the film opens with a quote from legendary Yankee Mickey Mantle:
“It’s amazing how much you don’t know about a game you play your whole life.”
Both themes are at work throughout.
‘Beane’ dumps his head scouts and hires a young Yale economics major (Jonah Hill) away from the Cleveland Indians to run his draft evaluation program. An enormous leap of faith anchored on ‘Beane’s’ belief, from personal experience, that the scouts may just not know what the heck they are talking about – and the real value of a ballplayer might really be found inside the actual simplified statistics of how often he gets on base and subsequently comes around to score. Simple really.
After a rocky open to the new season, due mostly to the fact that their field manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), refuses to play the statistical players he’s been handed and goes instead with the guys he knows can play, the team comes to life and all those Ivy League stats begin to show up in the win column. The A’s go on to win a major league record 20 consecutive games en route to a second consecutive division title. All after losing three of their most vital players.
It’s a great baseball story. It’s also a very well written screenplay.
Sorkin won the Oscar for his adaptation of The Social Network (2010). Steven Zaillian won the Oscar for Schindler’s List (1993). They both might want to begin arranging the mantle to make room for another.
But again, the moment belongs to Pitt, a sure bet to be nominated for his work here.
While the major thread of Moneyball is Beane’s Greek tragedy fall from grace as a player and his search for redemption as a general manager, there is also a strong father-daughter relationship at the heart of the film that works equally well.
Kerris Dorsey plays ‘Beane’s’ teenaged daughter, ‘Casey.’ Their scenes together are not only touching, but they bring out the best in Pitt the actor. Pitt the father. Pitt the man.
There is a point of exasperation in the film when Pitt’s ‘Beane’ argues with his neophyte head of scouting. “I’ve been in this game a long time,” he says with a poignant subtext of wisdom earned.
Brad Pitt has been making movies for a long time. He has at times been more of a celebrity than an actor. He has dedicated a lot of his time to charity around the world. He has also championed a slew of films and literary works as an executive producer. He is without a doubt one of the good guys in Hollywood.
I’m glad he stuck with the acting – because he’s become a fine one.