[23 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When viewed as part of the bigger picture within his sport, Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, was (and is) a baseball savant. He’s a savior, someone who relied on facts and figures vs. old school hunches to field a potential winner for ownership and fans alike. He gave struggling stars a chance, remanded divas to the dugout of others, and when push came to shove, allowed mathematics and the manipulation of statistics to determine everything from player position to pitching rotation. So you’d think that after all the scouting and study, all the line-up changes and skeptical looks, Beane and the boys would have multiple championships under their number-crunched belts, right?
Well, don’t be so sure about such a foregone conclusion. In Moneyball, the motion picture adaptation of the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, Beane (as essayed by a strikingly handsome and assured Brad Pitt) and his fancy figures (as personified by Jonah Hill) only manage a single significant accomplishment - a 20+ game winning streak - and never once win a World Series. While the former player turned team head honcho does reconnect with his winsome daughter and undermine his staff of old school scouts, his love of logic and computer based classification earns him no more victories, and since its publication in 2003, not much more love for the A’s or how they do business.
Beane is basically the poster child for a new baseball, high tech trial and error ideal in sports that avoids history and, instead, relies on the regurgitation of information to earn accolades. Not necessarily going with the highest skilled or paid players (basically, because he doesn’t have the cash to do so), he uses a complex set of numeric guides to give him that most elusive of edges - a consistent on-base percentage. The theory is simple - the more players that actually make it onto the field of play, the more chances for runs, and therefore the more chances for wins. Of course, this doesn’t factor in human anomaly, consistent starting pitching, a reliable closer, ownership support, or a manager who can make it all work. In the case of Beane and his various causational counts, the impediment is haggard chief Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sullen old salt who has to figure out how to shape his boss’s unbelievable collection of guesses.
The majority of this intriguing if factually suspect film revolves around Beane being laughed at and lamented by those who discount his new methodology. He tries to do things the traditional way, but money and unyielding bosses keeps getting in the way. When Beane meets Peter Brand (a legally mandated pseudonym for the real life Paul DePodesta) he sees some light at the end of his tired tunnel. He hates losing - we get the mandatory scene expressing same - and with his well-paid stars slipping away to other, bigger pastures, he needs something. So it’s not hard to see how Moneyball draws us in. We get a decent guy with an insurmountable problem, and the possibility of using something other than a gut feeling to get his way.
In the hands of Capote‘s Bennett Miller, the movie zips along at a pleasing pace. Pitt puts on that radiant smile (that is, when he’s not using the under bite of despair) and sells, sells, sells. He sells us on Beane being something other than a failed major leagurer. He sells us on this young gun being far more insightful and skilled than his scotch and tonic predecessors. He sells us on the failed family man conceit and the possibility of being a good parent. He also sells us on the notion that facts and figures will eventually earn a championship. According to the pre-ending stinger, it does indeed happen - for the Boston Red Sox.
Where Moneyball misses the mark, however, is in giving us a real window into an unusual and insular world. Professional sports are, by their very nature, an elitist pursuit. Millions strive for it - only a few actually get it. Using Beane’s own career as a kind of parallel to the problems he’s currently facing may seem like a telling juxtaposition, but the mirror cracks. We don’t actually understand why he would constantly reflect back on his failures as a means of driving his present path to success. It seems antithetical and counterproductive. There’s also the ongoing quarrels with Howe. While Hoffman makes him more of a curmudgeon than anything else, the clashes seem crafted for melodrama only.
Luckily, the script (a jigsaw puzzle of possibilities with names such as Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin attached to it) is very funny and often quite clever. When Beane tries to tell an ailing catcher that a switch to first base is easy, his sour right hand man contradicts him with perfect comic timing. Similarly, Hill’s stuffed hound dog face works wonders when put up against the globetrotting weariness of the old boy scout network. You’ll laugh quite a bit at Moneyball, snickering at the absurdity of the situations and the often more ridiculous responses. What you might not do is care. Miller makes us interested, but there is something beyond our inherent curiosity that’s missing. We are not engaged. We are not invested. We are barely even aware of the stakes.
Indeed, while entertaining and engrossing, Moneyball is also aloof. It’s a story being told to us, not with us in mind. It’s a star power statement where everything looks fantastic but little feels right. We enjoy the ride and yet wish for more - more insider scoop. More ESPN-less dirt. More nuts and bolts…and perhaps, most importantly, more motive to care. Beane is blessed (or cursed, however you see it) with being involving in a rarified field that few, if any, will ever experience in their lifetime. While not exactly charmed, his existence is enviable. Watching Moneyball, you get the feeling that this otherwise noble individual is just one great notion away from having it all. We want him to succeed. Within the confines of this movie (and this story), it’s just not going to happen…if ever.