Moneyball (2011) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A sports drama operated by numerical analysis

The underdog sports dramas are usually about fighting against all odds for win, but “Moneyball” is a different kind of underdog sports drama – it is about managing with odds and numbers for win. For assembling the baseball team with the best chance to win the games, they tried a different way, and the result was a remarkable success; the record of their American major league team, the Oakland Athletics, was dramatically changed in 2002. It was initially at the bottom with serial defeats, and then it surprised everyone by suddenly rising with the record-breaking feat – that eventually opened the door for a new way of managing baseball team a lot different from the tradition of more than 100 years.

For Billy Beane(Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the situation is difficult at the end of the season in October, 2001. His team has just lost to the New York Yankees in the final for the American league championship. Sure, people say there is always another time, but it is very hard for Beane to get another time with a good chance. They cannot get good players easily because his team cannot afford high salary for them unlike other major league teams with more assets(at that time, the value of the Oakland Athletics was around $ 38 million; the New York Yankees was around $ 112 million). Furthermore, when their contracts are expired, the good players in his team are usually recruited by the other teams offering a higher payment, leaving the holes to be filled up before the season starts. This time, his three star players leave the team after the season ended – that makes his situation more desperate.

There is no way to assemble the team as good as before with limited assets, but Beane keeps searching for the other way. He soon finds a possible solution from Peter Brand(Jonah Hill), the Yale graduate who does not know much about how to play baseball, but knows how to analyze the baseball players with Sabermetrics, the specialized analysis based on the statistical mathematics(the term came from the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research, by the way).

 Right from the moment when Beane spots Brand in the meeting at the Cleaveland Indians, you can see that Brand is a typical nerd character. He is a quiet, shy lad who speaks with lots of reluctance. While occupying his place at the corner, he whispers his opinions to the other guy in the room to whom people would listen more, rather than voice them for himself. However, when it is demanded, he gives the answers with clear certainty based on his data analysis. Beane sees the solution for him in Brand’s opinion on baseball players; if some baseball players are really undervalued like Brand says, why not buy them with the cheap prices he can accommodate?

The movie is based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”. The screenplay by Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, developed from the story by Stan Chervin who initially adapted the book, may be not so informative about Brand’s method, but it is very engaging even for the non-baseball fan like me because it is not just numbers and baseball game results. The movie is also an excellent drama about the people who attempts the method nobody has tried before, and it is sometimes quite funny, for it draws a lot of humor from the human interactions between the characters, spiced with the witty, insightful dialogues which constantly made me and the audiences laugh at the screening at last night(My personal memorable line: “Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?”).

I especially like the way the movie contrasts Brand with other professional recruiters at the Atlantic Athletics. They are all old middle-aged guys with lots of experience in their field, so they are befuddled by a young expert from nowhere with whom their boss wholly agrees. They has depended on subjective experience and intuition for spotting good players, but now here comes the guy who discards everything they believe and emphasizes the objective numerical values including on-base percentage for estimating the value of the players to be recruited or discarded. They are naturally not so happy about that, and neither is the team manager Art Howe, played with indomitable passive aggression by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won Best Actor Oscar for his great performance in the director Bennett Miller’s previous work “Capote”(2005). Howe may accept that Beane recruits the baseball players not good enough in his view, but he is the boss whenever the game begins.

 Beane does not seem to particularly like this new way, either. He was a failed major league player who was thought to have a big potential when the recruiters came to him with the promise of a successful career. When they first meet, Brand frankly says to Beane that he would not even been recruited as a top player if Brand had estimated him with his method at that time. But Beane sticks with Brand simply because he wants to win. If he fails, his career will be ruined forever, but he believes this gamble is only chance to achieve his goal, no matter how much he is frustrated in the process. It is one thing to assemble the team; it is another thing to manage the assembled team and the other people.

Brad Pitt’s good performance gradually reveals a driven man with doubts and worries trembling inside behind his casual facade. As a general manager making hard decisions, he tries to keep his cool attitude, but he can’t fool us or the daughter he dearly loves. Whenever the game is played, he is always out of the field while nervously waiting for the result. Like him, the movie does not look at the baseball games much except some crucial moments, because what happens between the games matters more to its story. The players are more or less than the secondary characters – they can be traded at any time whenever it is deemed necessary, though the movie recognizes them as someone more than the assets from time to time.

Although Peter Brand is a fictional composite character based on Beane’s assistant Paul DePodesta and other assistants who helped him(Depodesta did not like himself portrayed as a nerd, so he did not allow his name to be used – but he helped the production none the less), Jonah Hill gives an understated but vivid performance on the opposite of Pitt. Many good moments in the film come from the scenes between Pitt and Hill. My favourite scene is when Beane tries to get the deal he wants on the phone while Brand is providing the information at his side. Even without the music to pump up the intensity, the scene is as energetic as Wall Street thanks to the deft timing and precise response of two talented actors.

Because one of its screenplay writers is none other than Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for his great work in “The Social Network”(2010), “Moneyball” is immediately compared to that movie in my mind. Both movies has a nerdy character and the changes brought by him and others, and both of them do not directly say whether the changes depicted in their respective stories are good or bad.

Through its somber handling of the ending, the movie seems to imply that it is rather critical about the system which regards the players as something more or less than a bunch of digits in the computer data. Whether you like that or not, the change has already begun, according to the epilogue. People love baseball, but it has been strictly business to some people. They will try anything to control or increase the odds in plays if it seems to work; Sabermetrics only accelerates that trend. At least, there is still good old unpredictability on the field – for now.

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1 Response to Moneyball (2011) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A sports drama operated by numerical analysis

  1. Gerardo says:

    I loved the picture Seongyong. It’s probably my favorite of the year so far.
    When you mention unpredictibility on the field, this reminds me of how close the A’s came to going to the World Series in 2000 (lost defining game), 2001 (were 2-0 ahead of NY with one game to go and lost it to the infamous “Jeremy Gambi-not sliding” play), 2003 (were 2-0 ahead on Boston). I also remmember in 2006 they went to the playoffs and were favored to win but got swept by Minnesota.
    Of course, the movie couldn’t be about this failures.

    SC: Thanks for your comment, Gerardo. I also think it is one of the best movies I saw in this year. As you said, the movie is different from the real-life story for several aspects, but it’s still enjoyable. I have just read the article on the real-life story behind the movie, by the way – it helps appreciating the film more.

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