A film review by Craig J. Koban September 28, 2011

Rank:  #9

MONEYBALL jjjj
 

2011, PG-13, 133 mins.

Brad Pitt: Billy Beane / Jonah Hill: Peter Brand / Philip Seymour Hoffman: Art Howe / Robin Wright:  Sharon / Kerris Dorsey: Casey

Directed by Bennett Miller / Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Michael Lewis

The genius of MONEYBALL is that itís an unconventional and unexpected real life inspirational sports film.  It has the down-on-their-luck players, the insurmountable opponents, the proverbial ďbig gamesĒ, and so forth, but MONEYBALL is not really all that compelled with those elements.  Perhaps more refreshingly, the film is not even a traditional sports film at all, nor does one have to be an aficionado of Major League baseball to enjoy it.  Like MIRACLE, MONEYBALL is more about the behind-the-scenes personas and the politics of baseball than it is truly about the actual athletes themselves and the fundamental dynamics of the individual games.    

HmmmmÖmaybe the film is not really about baseball.  Like ROCKY, the film is about having the opportunity for second chances, both in sports and in life.  It also works brilliantly, as so few other sports films have, as a portal into our own recent financially strapped times.  MONEYBALL's main theme is about finding that discrete and oftentimes hidden value in things that so many other people canít find and how those that do find it are personally redeemed for believing in its value.  More crucially, the film explores how money and value do not necessarily work together to predicate performance and relative worth.  Something thatís cheap and seemingly disposable has value in ways so few can perceive. 

Thatís what makes MONEYBALL such an unqualified triumph: it explores the fascinating business side of baseball that we rarely get glimpses of and it also provides viewers with a fly-on-the-wall look into the provocative and intrepid personalities that donít play the game that lead to a teamís ultimate success.  In a way, itís kind of a perfect sports film for our fiscally uncertain times.  It almost works as a metaphor for lower-middle working class strife; sometimes, we have to exploit the little intangible things for maximum and efficient gain. 

The film Ė directed by Bennett Miller (CAPOTE) and written by the  dream team pairing of Oscar winning screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) and Steven Zaillian (SCHINDLERíS LIST) Ė is based on the 2003 book MONEYBALL: THE ART OF WINNING AND UNFAIR GAME by Michael Lewis, which in turn deals with the Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane, in the early 2000ís.  The book and film explore the massive and, yes, unfair gulf that exists between rich and poor baseball teams while competing for World Series glory and how Beane, with some help, used modern advances in analytics to create a sabermetric approach to develop a productive and winning team on a dime store budget.  By using more empirical means of fielding a team (primarily using on-base percentages), Beane and his small entourage spat in the face of collected baseball wisdom of the last 100-plus years, which they saw as antiquated and flawed.    

The film opens with largely archival footage of the 2001 post-season game between Oakland and the New York Yankees: The Aís had a payroll of around $40 million, whereas the Bronx Bombers had one well north of $125 million.  Oakland loses the game and, in the off season, they loss their key star players, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen to free agency waters.  GM Beane (played with rock solid and steady poise by Brad Pitt) is both depressed and angered at the loss, and heís perhaps more upset that the owner will not fit the bill to get the necessary replacements he needs to take the team into the 2002-2003 season.  Beaneís meetings with his well over-the-hill scouts are some of the filmís finest, which seem joyously saturated with loose and improvisational rapid fire exchanges; these moments just as well could have been from documentary, as these guys talk like real baseball insiders.  The problem for Beane, though, is that within a few minutes of dealing with them he knows that his upcoming season is in jeopardy. 

One day with a visit with the brass of the Cleveland Indians changes Beaneís life forever.  There he meets Peter Brand (a more quiet, reserved, and understated Jonah Hill), a young Yale graduate that impresses Beane with his intimate knowledge and radical ideas of baseball and how to pick players to win games.  As a gauge of trust, Beane asks Brand if he would have drafted him in the first round (Beane began his career as a once promising, but ultimately doomed player), to which Brand sheepishly responds, ďNinth round.Ē  Beane likes his brash honesty, so he hires him as the Aís Assistant GM. 

 

 

Of course, Beane and Brandís new approach to picking undervalued players that other teams have forgotten does not sit well with the scouts or the teamís manager, Art Howe (played with a menacing and detached calm by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), but Beane is insistent that they give their new and highly unorthodox system a try, which does fail miserable at first.  Yet, Beane and Brand persevere, and the Aís do, in fact, come out of a rather large hole in the standings to win an unprecedented 20 games in a row, a league record.  The team and Beaneís new fangled approach to fielding a secessful club becomes the talk of the league, but it still remains to be seen whether the Aís will have any success in the 2003 post season. 

Again, the greatness of MONEYBALL is about whatís said and who says it in the locker rooms, the front offices, and off the field than it is about the players and games themselves.  This leads to some of the filmís more surprisingly funny moments, as is the case where Beane and Brand make calculated and shrewd deals playing phone tag with multiple teams; the odd-couple interplay between Pitt and Hill is infectious: theyíre like kids in a candy store trying to secure the best deal for the best sweets.  The players almost become commodities to be dealt rather than human beings, and MONEYBALL is spot-on with how its personalities wheel and deal like grizzled poker sharks.  The look of the film also lends greatly to its sense of gnarly verisimilitude: Oscar winning cinematography Wally Pfister (INCEPTION and the recent BATMAN films) gives all of the teamís backstage clubhouse and office interiors a suitably drab, claustrophobic, and cold sheen. 

The performances in the film are its chief assets, and Brad Pitt gives one of his most deeply textured and introspective performances of his career playing the deeply conflicted, self doubting, lonely, but perpetually determined and tenaciously daring GM.  Itís easy to overlook Pittís movie star magnetism and aging, but still boyish good looks, but beneath that faÁade lurks an actor that knows how to submerge himself into a delicately multifaceted character like Beane, who is a figure thatís constantly out to prove himself despite deep worries that he will fail.  The film provides flashbacks to his failed pro-career, which led to failures in his marriage, but the only thing he has left is his relationship to baseball and his daughter (played with a natural playfulness by Kerris Dorsey).  Heís an ordinary, kind and gentile dad to his daughter, but when in the locker room or office, heís an edgy cauldron of fortitude.  Jonah Hillís atypically relaxed, submissive, and soft-spoken intonations in the film are an effective foil to Pitt. Brand is equally fascinating, though: heís never played a baseball game in his life, but he knows the game arguably better than Beane.   

Some of complained that MONEYBALL makes Beane into a needless messiah-like figure in a struggling game.  Thereís a debate as to whether the film perhaps sidesteps the notion as to whether he was an overrated GM.  Consider this: despite the Aís winning 20 games in a row they very quickly lost to the Minnesota Twins in the 2003 post-season in the first round.  Plus, no team has ever won a World Series with Beane as a GM.  There is a really intriguing prologue to the film where Beane, disappointed by the Aís playoff loss, has a meeting with the owner of the Boston Red Sox for the GM position there.  The Soxís owner wants to use Beane's approach for the Aís to forge a winning club.  Of course, history shows that he turned down $12.5 million contract and stuck with the Aís, a contract that would have made him the highest paid GM ever.  Oakland never won a championship and the Sox, using Beane and Brandís pioneering statistical methods, created a team that broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. 

Whether Beane is an overrated GM in the annals of pro-sports is not the point of MONEYBALL.  Beane was certainly disappointed by the failure of Oakland in the playoffs in 2003, but the real victory of the film is that he proved all of his countless skeptics wrong, which makes MONEYBALL such a deceptively unique, perceptive, and ultimately winning entertainment.  Beane has not won the ďbig gamesĒ, but he was undeniably a trendsetting force for the game: the term ďMoneyballĒ has entered the sporting lexicon now because of him and so many modern baseball teams use his model for drafting players that to say that his influence is not there would be naÔve.  Beaneís impact on the management side of the game is incontestable.  Heís not a perfect sports protagonist; heís a flawed one.  Outside of a lack of tangible championship trophies, Beaneís smaller triumph was in proving that he could change the sport.  He found value in once valueless commodities.  I think thereís a message here bigger than baseball, which makes MONEYBALL one of the best sports films in a long time. 

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