Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh
PLOT: The general manager of the Oakland A’s attempts to assemble a winning team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.
I’ll just say it: on paper, “Moneyball” should not work as a movie.
What have you got? A feel-good sports story about a baseball team from 2002 utilizing the science of statistics to assemble the right combination of players to get them into the playoffs.
I mean, really? Specifics aside, a Cinderella story about an underdog sports team trying to make it to the big game is one of the oldest, most predictable tropes in film. Let’s count them off: “Major League”, “The Bad News Bears”, “Bull Durham”, “The Mighty Ducks”, “Little Giants”, “Cool Runnings”, “Wimbledon”, “Hoosiers”, etcetera, etcetera.
And in “Moneyball”, we barely even get to see any baseball action itself. The movie is more concerned with the behind-the-scenes action, beating the trade deadline, shaking up the scouting crew, trying to get the manager to believe in the new system. We don’t really see any major baseball action until we get close to the finale.
[SPOILER ALERT…unless you’re a HUGE baseball fan, in which case you were already aware of this]
And let’s talk about that finale, while we’re at it. The A’s make it to the 2002 ALDS elimination game, and what happens? They LOSE. Say what???
So why, oh why, does “Moneyball” work the way it does?
…no, really, I’m asking. Because I’m not 100% sure myself. Let me just tick off my thoughts as they occur to me here.
1. There’s the screenplay. Here’s some good advice: when you want to make a movie about a potentially dry subject, get both Steven Zaillian AND Aaron Sorkin to write your script. The pace of the movie is stately, even sedate, but the dialogue is crisp, clean, and precise, getting to the point as efficiently as possible without being flashy. In one memorable scene, someone walks up to the General Manager’s office and says just one word: “Peña,” and then walks away. The GM takes it in, says, “Okay”, and calmly stands and flips his desk over. The whole thing is over in 15 seconds. I can imagine another movie wasting a lot of time with extra words or edits, but not “Moneyball.” (SPARTAN. That’s the word I’m thinking of. The dialogue is spartan.)
2. There’s the editing. The dialogue is sleek and uncluttered, but there is a lot of information that has to be conveyed to those audience members who may not know what a box score is, or what a DH is, or why Billy Beane (the GM, played by Brad Pitt) doesn’t CARE whether his new first baseman can even field the ball properly, as long as he gets ON BASE when he’s batting. This is accomplished through extremely skillful film editing. Rather than use flashy editing to generate false suspense or excitement, the Oscar-nominated editors use more of that spartan vibe, with occasional jumps to actual film clips of the actual team or individual players. This is especially helpful when the film’s middle section details the woeful first half of the season under the new statistics-based system. Again, not flashy, but effective. VERY hard to pull off, and deservedly recognized.
3. There’s the structure…which I guess points back to both the screenplay and editing, but I’m just saying. As I said, it’s a classic, well-worn trope. Good guys get knocked down for the count – the A’s flat-out SUCK for the first half of the season – but then they suddenly start winning games and crawl back into contention. And as many of these films that I’ve seen, I still found myself unwittingly getting caught up in the spirit of the comeback. In actual fact, the 2002 season is the one where the real Oakland A’s threatened to break the American League record for longest winning streak. And it all comes down to one at-bat in the bottom of the ninth. Because of COURSE it does.
4. …and that sort of brings up another point. Is there another sport that has as much innate mythology as baseball? Sure, football has its share of comeback stories, and so does hockey and everything else. But with BASEBALL…lemme tell you. A few years ago when the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of winning their first World Series in A HUNDRED AND EIGHT YEARS, I watched Game 7, rooting for the Cubs. For those Cubs fans who watched as well, you’ll recall: that game was unmerciful. The Cubs blew a 3-run lead, they ended nine innings in a 6-6 tie, and then there was a RAIN DELAY before the 10th inning started. But I will never forget that moment when the Cubs made the final out, and they wound up winning 8-7. It was glorious. …well, watching “Moneyball”, watching that section when the A’s are creeping up to winning twenty games in a row, I found myself grinning and laughing spontaneously, without even realizing I was doing it, and I remembered what it was like to watch the Cubs win. And a big part of it has to do with that ineffable, psychic connection we have to the game itself, that sense of the romantic when someone clobbers a game-winning homer, or makes a dramatic catch to save a no-hitter, or when a relief pitcher retires the side with bases loaded. I’m not a true baseball fan, I’ll admit…but I know good drama when it happens. “Moneyball” gets that part of the game JUST right.
(I haven’t even MENTIONED the sterling performances from the principal actors, particularly Jonah Hill, who nabbed an acting nomination for one of the most underplayed characters in history.)
In the end, “Moneyball” is exactly like the Oakland A’s in the film. It’s an unlikely combination of talent that generated surprising results and was critically acclaimed, gathering six Oscar nods. It failed to win a single Oscar…much like the A’s were eventually eliminated from the playoffs in 2002.
But in the end, it’s not the shutout at the Oscars that I remember. It’s the fact that this is still one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen, and definitely one of the top 2 or 3 BASEBALL films I’ve ever seen.