At around the 90-minute mark, Moneyball has a sequence showing the 2002 Oakland A’s chasing the American League record of 20 consecutive wins. But, with the record in sight, Oakland look set to blow it.
In the 20th game they throw away a big lead. But then an unlikely hero steps up to the plate, bat meets ball . . . and it’s out of there. A home run. The stadium explodes in joy. It’s spine-tingling stuff. And it’s just about the only concession that Moneyball makes to standard sports movies.
Call it the Rocky problem. After Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 movie showed an underdog battling against the odds – along with a training montage set to a catchy soundtrack – the template was set for sports movies. They became Disneyfied over the years, the shape of every story as obvious and telegraphed as a romcom.
Michael Lewis’s 2003 book (Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game) is not really a sports book. It’s more a book about economics and statistics that happen to have been applied to sport.
If you’ve read any of Lewis’s other books, such as Liar’s Poker, The Big Short or Flash Boys, you’ll know how he writes. Essentially Lewis is superb at communicating insanely complicated economic concepts. As you read it all seems thrilling and clear, even if your mind is racing just to keep up. The concept is probably out of your reach to fully understand but it feels so tantalisingly close that you are willing to run along in its slipstream, grabbing at the bits you can comprehend.
Moneyball wasn’t an obvious choice for a movie adaptation. It isn’t about the glory or romance of sport, it’s about the hard-nosed business of professional sport. Also, it doesn’t really have a story structure, has only one main character and there’s no pay off or ending.
But Brad Pitt was a fan. His production company snapped up the rights and screenwriter Steve Zallian (Schindler’s List; Mission Impossible, Gangs of New York) got to work on shaping the story.
There's a truthfulness to how events are depicted in Moneyball
Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich) came in as director and started recording interviews that he planned to drop into the movie as inserts. But just five days before shooting was meant to start, the studio got cold feet over Soderbergh’s plan to have actual baseball players play themselves in the movie. A time-out was called, Soderbergh moved on, and two new signings were made: director Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (that thing you like with the snappy dialogue).
The story follows the Oakland A’s, one of the poorest teams in Major League Baseball, and their attempts to compete with high-spending behemoths like the Yankees or the Red Sox.
General manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has seen his team stripped for parts yet again in the close season and has become disillusioned in trying to play what he sees as a rigged game. He hires stats nerd Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and resolves to follow what the numbers reveal rather than what people’s eyes see, reasoning that they need to find value in players that others are missing, thus setting himself in opposition to received wisdom amongst his own staff and basically everyone in baseball.
That might sound complex, and ideally you’d be a fan of baseball or at the very least aware of how American sports work, but the film’s secret sauce is how it makes itself accessible to non-sports fans.
Pitt turns the movie star charm up to 11, continuing his gradual metamorphosis into Robert Redford, and has a superb comedy double act throughout with Hill (“Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?” “Are those my only two options?”).
The cast is uniformly brilliant with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt and Robin Wright popping up. And they know when to temper baseball lingo with one-liners (“Do I look worried? ‘Cause you’re getting on an airplane. Those things crash all the time.”)
There’s also a lot of heart on show. The film’s most important relationship is the one between Beane and his 12-year-old daughter, played by Kerris Dorsey. Dorsey performed a song during her audition that so impressed director Miller he used it as the emotional coda of the film. Fittingly, the song was called The Show, an American term for Major League Baseball. “I’ve got to let it go /and just enjoy The Show.”
But for dedicated sports fans jaded by the Mighty Ducks template, there’s a truthfulness to how events are depicted in Moneyball. An early scene sees the club’s scouts gather with Beane as they set about trying to rebuild a roster that has been picked clean by clubs with deeper pockets. Men that have spent too much time with the sun on their deeply creased faces talk shop and spit tobacco.
“He can’t hit a curve ball.”
“Yeah, there’s work to be done, I’ll admit that.”
“And an ugly girlfriend.”
“What does that mean?”
“Ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”
Beane can’t hide his disgust at what he is hearing, exactly the kind of archaic thinking that he wants to stamp out of the club, but the scene feels authentic, which was surely helped by the fact that pretty much everybody in the room beyond Pitt was an actual professional baseball scout. The scout to whom the girlfriend quote is attributed clarified at a later point that he had been misrepresented – he didn’t think an ugly girlfriend meant no confidence, he worried that it signalled bad eyesight.
And plenty of fans must identify with Beane’s struggle to watch games. Flicking on and off the radio. Changing channels on the TV. Going for a drive. Anything to avoid the torture of sitting and watching this thing you care so much about (“I hate losing. I hate it. I hate losing more than I even wanna win.”).
And of course there’s the most important and brutal reality – how things don’t always end in glory. Beane’s ultimate dream is to “win the last game of the season”, but he never does. Which is exactly how most fans watch games, hoping to be crowned as the best, but painfully aware that you are far more likely to lose.
Worse, Beane’s methods get co-opted by the big boys. The Boston Red Sox attempt to hire him, but when he turns them down, they simply employ his methods on a bigger scale, and with a bigger budget. They end their 86-year wait for a World Series two years later. Yet again the little guys find themselves outgunned. And Beane is back where he started.
But it’s fitting that a film about tearing down the system also tears up the script. Both the book and the movie close with the story of a portly slugger stepping up to bat. He makes contact with the ball and runs to first base, before getting a rush of blood to the head and doing something he never asks his overweight body to do – he decides to try to make it to second base.
To his mortification he slips and falls, and in his panic tries to crawl back to first base on his hands and knees. At this point the crowd and all the players are laughing at him. All his nightmares have come to life. Until he realises why they are laughing at him. The ball he hit went 60 feet over the fence – he hit a home run and he didn’t even realise.
Brand: “It’s a metaphor.”
Beane: “I know it’s a metaphor.”
Beane’s methods have since been co-opted by all of baseball, and have gradually spread through every sport, from NFL to soccer to even GAA.
It seems apt and honest that a thoroughly modern sports movie should demonstrate how the free thinkers often aren’t the ones to benefit from their own innovations. Frequently someone else gets the glory. So just enjoy the show.