Sunday, October 2, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

By Rick Morris

A movie that is comprised equally of the entertaining and the inaccurate, Moneyball is a movie that isn’t quite sure what it aims to be. That’s not at all surprising, given the hugely awkward fit of the subject matter to a Hollywood project. But it is a worthwhile use of your time.

While Deadspin is busy labeling any criticisms of the film’s accuracy as pedantic, those of us who really enjoyed Michael Lewis’s namesake book can’t help but notice some of the biggies:

^ There was no “Peter Brand” in real life, although you’ve got to cut the filmmakers some slack on this one since Billy Beane’s real-life right-hand-man Paul DePodesta asked that his name not be used. Then again, had they not cast Jonah Hill in his last “fat man role” for a part ripe to be viewed as the personification of the sabermetrics nerd, perhaps DePodesta wouldn’t have seen the casting as fatal to his chances of ever securing another general manager job.

^ Brand/DePodesta wasn’t hired away from the Cleveland front office after the 2001 season; that happened three years prior.

^ The 2002 draft, which was the centerpiece of the book, does not play any part in the movie.

^ Art Howe may not have been completely enamored of the top-down structure in Oakland, where the front office ran many aspects that were traditionally within the control of the manager. But there is no evidence whatsoever that he was such a passive-aggressive obstacle to Beane’s program (again, though, I’m cutting some slack, because casting one of today’s finest thespians, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, made every Howe scene subtly hilarious). Likewise, David Justice was not apprised by the front office of his role as a science experiment (how long a past-his-prime star hangs on to valuable remnants of his skill set) and as such, had no clash with Beane, DePodesta or anyone else. But the writers chose to use these characters to inject dramatic tension. I am sympathetic to Howe’s hostility to the depiction, though, as it presents real challenges to his future employment in the team-first atmosphere of Major League Baseball.

^ Speaking of contrived conflicts, Oakland scouting director Grady Fuson never got fired and did not publicly blast Beane afterwards – although he did call out Beane for seeming unappreciative towards his scouts in the Moneyball book, a critical distinction. Fuson did have a different philosophy than Beane and DePodesta, but not nearly to the extent featured onscreen.

^ Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson were three of the very best pitchers in the game during this time period and they were on the Oakland roster (because they were still young enough not to cost much yet). Their names were never mentioned during the movie, because it would be hard to present the As as a big underdog story with these mound dominators as part of the narrative.

^ Billy Beane did not hit up any general managers for free pop for his players in the clubhouse.

The arrogance of Mark Shapiro is accurately captured, though!

I disagree with Deadspin that noticing these matters is nitpicking. I think it’s valid to question how much they should affect your enjoyment of the movie, though.

Again, it’s an awkward movie to make, because the As of the early 2000s were overachievers, especially relative to payroll, but they never won the World Series and only captured a single playoff series in 2006, four years past the end of the book and the film. The movie is set from the end of the 2001 season – which culminated in a loss to the Yankees in the American League Division Series – to the end of the 2002 season – which culminated in a loss to Minnesota in the American League Division Series. This revision to the status quo ante would do a sitcom proud!

If this review is giving the impression of a mixed bag, that would be 100% accurate. Brad Pitt’s embodiment of Beane was very well-done and, by all accounts (including Beane), very accurate. His portrayal of the struggles of the intense and hyper-competitive Beane could put him in line for something come award season. At the same time, I would have liked a bit more structure to the flashback scenes about Beane’s playing career, maybe even with a narrative format. Speaking of elements that could have been featured more, Ron Washington’s coaching of Scott Hatteberg at first base left more room to be explored for entertainment value, as did Hatteberg’s real-life chattiness when opposing players got on base.

You have to give the filmmakers credit for not taking the easy out of a happy ending, as it would have been easy to invest everything in the jubilation of the team’s turnaround and subsequent, shocking, record-breaking 20-game winning streak. But the lead characters dismissed it in relation to a World Series title, which was not forthcoming. Granted, Beane was given some credit prior to the final credits for Boston’s historic 2004 World Series title, since they aped his methodology when they were unable to hire him away, but Beane would probably be the first to label that as cold comfort.

Again, the story’s not easy to present, especially without the happy ending that Hollywood usually demands. There are two key target audiences for this film and they are not exactly complementary of one another:

1 People who want to see a typical sports movie and are perhaps additionally drawn to it because of Pitt, Hill and/or Hoffman.

2 People like myself who greatly enjoyed the book and understand the real-life story.

Group 1 probably doesn’t dig the ending and Group 2 probably wanted less inaccuracy. As a member of Group 2, it may seem that I have been a bit harsh toward the movie, but I am being honest about my biases. However, at the end of the day, given that the movie was neither fish nor fowl in terms of checking off the usual movie-industry boxes for a sports movie, I’m inclined to be generous and grade on the curve of how such subject matter is generally presented. By those standards, the film can be enjoyed for what it is and I give it thumbs-up.

[NOTE: Moneyball will be the subject of an upcoming FDH Lounge Mini-Episode as the Lounge Dignitaries who viewed it together will be presenting a group review. We’ll have that for you right here.]

Here’s the movie trailer:

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