Tuesday, October 4, 2011
This was one of my top 10 most anticipated films of the fall, largely because I've long been fascinated by the projects its star, Brad Pitt, has chosen to affiliate himself with, way back to the halcyon days of the one-two punch of Interview With the Vampire and Legends of the Fall, both of which made him What He Is Today and which he followed by the shrewd choice of working on David Fincher's pitch black thriller-but-really-a-horror-film Seven (which, incidentally, is the film that made Fincher what *he* is today).
Speaking of Fincher, this movie reminds me quite a bit of The Social Network, despite its outward appearance as a "baseball" movie. Moneyball is not a baseball movie, by the way, but it does have an element of he magic that we Americans associate with that sport. It's also about underdogs, which is something we associate with a lot of sports films.
The movie is about Billy Beane, the man who is still the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics (or the A's, as they're more frequently called). The movie begins by showing us the sickeningly wide gap between what a team like the New York Yankees can afford to spend on players' salaries (something like $132 million) and what the A's can spend (more like $34 million - less than 1/4 the Yankees' budget). We see a very painful loss at the end of the 2001 season, followed by three of Beane's star players to other teams. Beane can only play the hand he's dealt and we sit through a couple of excruciating meetings with scouts trying to find replacements for the lost players. We hear all about what traditional wisdom says makes a good ball player - even down to silly things like whether the player has an ugly girlfriend, a detail which these old guys parlay into a lack of confidence - and it's all just noise to Beane, because they have this conversation every year and it never gets them anywhere.
He meets a young guy named Paul Brand at a failed trade meeting with another team. Brand is a Yale grad who majored in economics and has some very unconventional (some might say crazy) ideas about how to evaluate players. They should be buying home runs, Brand argues, not players. Beane brings him on as assistant GM and aggressively initiates this new approach (called sabermetrics) to their scouting, selecting players based almost entirely on their ability to get on base. This new method flies in the face of everything everyone has always thought about baseball, and as such draws the ire of the scouts and the manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Howe refuses to play several key players in the positions they were hired for - most notably Scott Hatteberg, who had spent most of his career as a catcher but was hired as a first baseman for the A's, and who Howe was consistently relegating to the bench because he wasn't a traditional first baseman and was still essentially learning how to play the position. The A's don't do well at all at this time, which most critics and much of the team staff blame on the new system, but which Beane is sure is only because everyone is bucking his methods. He eventually trades away the only "stars" on the team so that Howe will use the players in the way they were intended to be used when they were brought on.
And then they start winning. They win 19 games in a row, tying the all-time league record, and game 20 is probably the greatest sequence in the movie, culminating in Hatteberg's home run, which is a thing of absolute and flawless beauty. Seriously, I don't think the crack of a baseball bat has ever sounded so gorgeous.
I won't spoil the rest of it, though you could find out all the facts on the internet anyway. The script was written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (not together, but they share credit), and you can see both of their handprints on the film. The director, Bennett Miller, also made 2005's Capote and this film has a similar kind of measured pace and discipline (though it's obviously more romantic - as Pitt says in the film, though, it's hard not to be romantic about baseball). I loved the use of (what I presumed to be) archival footage and its integration with the staged reenactments of the various games. Acting is great across the board. Most surprising, perhaps, is Jonah Hill, who's most recognizable as part of the "Apatow stable" but who really shines here in a much more straight role. Also of note is Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg, who generates a lot of sympathy as an everyday player who is scared to death of his new position.
A great movie, and if you haven't seen it yet and have any affection for sports whatsoever, I'd definitely recommend it.