Moneyball Review: Home Run or Curve Ball?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, opened this weekend. I just saw it and loved it. I’m not a huge baseball fan – far from it – but this is a film almost everyone, even a non-sports lover, can love.

Having grossed over $20 million in it’s first days of release (second to Lion King 3-D), the film has gotten generally favorable reviews. In contrast to many feel-good sports movies, Moneyball is less about the romance of America’s national pastime and more about the corporate strategy behind the game. In fact it was these back-office decisions that were among the most revelatory (for me at least). I was riveted by the cut-throat deal-making and lack of loyalty displayed by the owners and team managers. A real eye-opener to see what the “real” world is like.

For those who aren’t hard-core baseball fans, or haven’t read the best-selling book upon which the film is based (a book by financial writer Michael Lewis, who also authored The Blind Side) Pitt plays the real-life Billy Beane, general manager of the cash-poor Oakland Athletics. Jonah Hill (a Judd Apatow staple) is the nerdy young Yale-educated economist who becomes Beane’s statistician and strategic partner in taking on the old-boy network.

Film critic Caryn James (who I agree with wholeheartedly about there being too much spitting in baseball) puts a bit of a gothic spin in her explanation of the team strategy. In her review she writes:

Since they [the Oakland A’s] can’t afford multi-million dollar contracts, they put together a composite of lesser ones, a kind of reverse-monster Frankenstein: a good arm here, a good pair of legs there, not necessarily on the same body. Less gut instinct, more business savvy – an idea that shatters the sports cliches everyone grew up with.

Really. Who knew there was no humanity in the business of baseball? Or that the behind-the-scenes machinations could be so interesting? Certainly screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (West Wing, The Social Network, Sports Night) along with director Bennett Miller (a stage veteran whose first film was Capote) and leading man Brad Pitt had a great deal to do with making the film widely accessible but the underlying story is what grabs you.

Pitt, who also served as the film’s producer, was drawn to the classic underdog tale and the battle of the haves versus the have-nots. He told MTV News:

“These are guys that are working in an unfair game. They are a team with no money trying to fight — it’s David vs. Goliath. How are they going to be competitive? How are they going to stand a chance? They can’t fight the other guys’ fight; they’re going to lose every time. These guys had to rethink it and rethink what they were doing.

Beane and Company, using computer analysis to inform their draft picks, theorized that players who had superficial flaws and were largely considered rejects could actually generate more wins than overpriced stars.  Beane’s never-give-up determination (along with a back story that is slowly revealed through flashbacks) is the driving force behind Moneyball but following the ragtag team and seeing players get a second chance reinforces the themes of the film.

Beane’s ex-wife, played by Robin Wright, appears in an odd single scene with her new husband – the antithesis of Beane. Though their marriage ended in divorce—Beane still wears a wedding ring leaving a bit of the story untold. His relationship with his 12 year old daughter is somewhat more layered but not enough to add any real depth to the story.

At the end of the day, the film is about baseball – a myth-making game based on hopes and dreams. Moneyball may not have the feel-good ending of The Blind Side, but it demonstrates that just staying in the game can sometimes be as good as winning it.

And while Beane may not have ever won a World Series, he (at least played by Pitt) has won a lot of hearts.

Some of my other favorite sports movies include: Hoosiers, A League of Their Own, Million Dollar Baby, Rudy, Love and Basketball and Heart of the Game. Add them to your queue and let me know which are your favorites.

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