Sports movies are made quite often. Usually, they tell the tale of a ragtag bunch of underdogs coming together to succeed, occasionally with the help of angels or a particularly skilled golden retriever. However, the idea of a sports movie that focused on the front office and their use of advanced statistics to gain an advantage, but not to win it all, is on the surface an odd idea. Not only was that movie made, but it garnered multiple Oscar nominations and was a big success. That movie is 2011's Moneyball.
Granted, Moneyball is helped by the fact that it had some big weight behind it. It stars Brad Pitt, was directed by Bennett Miller, and had Aaron Sorkin work on the screenplay. Still, it is a movie adapted from a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis that is about, in part, using market inefficiencies in order to overcome financial difficulties. You know, classic movie stuff. On the other hand, there is the germ of a sports movie idea in the book, and this movie extrapolates that out in traditional "based on a true story" fashion.
The story, as told by the movie, is as follows. Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland Athletics. After being eliminated in the playoffs by the big budget New York Yankees in 2001, they lose three of their key players in free agency (although one of them is Jason Isringhausen, but let us not get into the overexaggerated value of the closer in baseball at the moment) and Beane isn't given the budget to replace them. Then, Beane runs into Peter Brand, (Jonah Hill), a young Yale economics grad who uses math and sabermetrics and the teachings of Bill James to analyze baseball. He believes that it can help a team like the A's win without having to spend cash. Beane hires Brand, and they begin the process of trying to bolster their roster.
Most of the movie then becomes about Beane and Brand clashing with baseball traditionalists. Beane's scouts take a particular beating, and A's manager Art Howe also is positioned as a roadblock for Beane's vision. We meet a few of the ragtag guys brought in for cheap by Beane, with Scott Hatteberg, played by Chris Pratt, the most notable, biggest role. It isn't surprising where things go from here, both because this is a sports movie and a true story. The A's go on a huge winning streak, return to the playoffs, and Beane is in part vindicated.
There is also a lot of stuff about Beane's personal life, as Moneyball is really as much about Beane as it is the team. It is about his plans to build the team, his internal struggles, his job being on the line, and even, to a degree, his family life, as his young daughter is brought into the mix a bit as well. This makes some sense, as when you have an actor like Brad Pitt you want to use him, but it also allows them to make the story a bit smaller and to add some more personal emotion. Beane's history of a failed prospect plays into that certainly.
Viewing this movie is complex if you happen to be somebody who actually pays attention to advanced statistics and are aware of Moneyball and sabermetrics. The film certainly takes some liberties with the actual events, which is fine, because it is a movie and they had to create a story. The most glaring example is that Hill's Brand is not an actual person. He is based largely on Paul DePodesta, who did not want his actual name used. Maybe it is because DePodesta is an athletics, fit man who plays sports in college, while Brand is Hill at his doughiest, and the character is portrayed as being sort of the opposite of an athlete. He wears glasses, after all. Of course, this makes some sense from a story perspective as it positions him even further as an outsider shaking up the system.
Art Howe also is turned into a villain he wasn't in real life, and scouts take a particular beating. However, once again this fits the story of one (or two) men raging against the machine and finding success. The fact that the A's had three great pitchers in their staff is never mentioned either. None of this is really problematic, even as a baseball fan, though. What is problematic is when the movie misrepresents advanced statistics and what Beane and folks are really about. For example, in the movie scouts are entirely dismissed as not having utility, which is not the case. Also, Beane and Brand seem only concerned about players getting on base. Sure, on-base percentage is very important, and at the time was undervalued, but it is only a piece of the buzzle. Beane also tells a player not to steal anymore, because stealing is too dangerous. Stealing percentage is more important than total steal totals, yes, but a player who was a smart base stealer would never be told not to steal.
The movie espouses Beane's philosophy and even trots out buffoons like Joe Morgan to be taken down a peg, and rightfully so. However, when Moneyball can't even properly articulate the lessons of the book it is in part based on, that is a problem. That being said, those issues don't impact the storytelling or the performances. Pitt is engaging as Beane, and he does a good job, although his Best Actor nomination feels a bit odd. Even odder was Hill's nomination. He's fine in the film, but his performance isn't all that impressive, and he doesn't have the cache of Pitt. Maybe this was a vote in favor of large Jonah Hill over thin Jonah Hill. Nobody else really stands out. This movie is largely a two-hander, an that leans heavily toward Pitt.
Even if you aren't familiar with Moneyball or the 2002 Oakland Athletics, if you just like sports movies you will probably like this film. It tells a story of upstarts well, it hits the right beats, and it is being led by a tremendous talent in Pitt. However, it doesn't really rise above the trappings of your run-of-the-mill sports movie, even with the pedigree behind it. It isn't a great script, which is somewhat surprising with Sorkin's involvement, and nothing about the film as a hole really stands out. That isn't to say it isn't a good movie, because it is, even if you know baseball and realize some of the issues within the storytelling. Moneyball surprises by turning a seemingly mundane story of numbers and baseball front offices into a legitimate, entertaining film. It just didn't turn it into a film that deserved all its critical acclaim and award nominations.