It was something of a miracle that Michael Lewis was able to write an entertaining and informative book about baseball economics. When I read Moneyball a few years ago, a film adaptation was the furthest thing from my mind. Yet, here it is and I’ll be darned if it isn’t one of the best movies of 2011. Working with a script from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, Bennett Miller keeps the economic talk in check and brings the human drama to the forefront.
Other than religion and politics, it’s tough to think of what causes more natural conflict in the world than money. Everyone seems to be either doing everything they can to make more of it or fight hard to keep it. And therein lies the initial conflict facing Oakland Athletics general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), as he tries to field a competitive baseball team in the midst of sky-rocketing player salaries.
Baseball is a game steeped in tradition. Messing with the sacred elements of the game are a type of blasphemy in some circles. But that’s exactly what Beane does. Surrounded by a bunch of baseball’s old guard, the general manager sees no hope in sticking with “the way things are.” Faced with a microscopic budget and the pressure to field a competitive team, Beane turns from traditional scouting methods and instead takes a path routed in economic theory.
With Yale graduate , Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), at his side, Beane proceeds to change the way many baseball teams evaluate players, digging deep into stats to find bargains. Today, it’s a more common practice, but that’s in large part to the success the Athletics achieved under Beane.
The film focuses on the various power struggles Beane encounters as he tries to establish the new system. It starts with his scouts, who are treated like idiots, offering evaluations based on hunches, broad observations and the appearance of their girlfriends. Next is Athletics on-field manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who picks the starting lineup each and every game. Normally, managers are supposed to be the leader of the players, yet Beane is constantly meddling with Howe, tlling him who to play and when.
As interesting as these struggles are, they’re not enough to carry the entire film. Miller is able to bring in good internal conflict for Beane. A failed prospect on the field, the general manager is struggling to finally find some success. He’s also trying to be a father to a daughter who doesn’t share the same motivations as him. By becoming more human, Moneyball rises above being simply a “baseball movie” and into something much more universal. Feelings of inadequacy and fighting to be understood are much more common struggles than wins and losses.
Of course, there is all that baseball stuff too, but that’s largely relegated to the film’s final act as Beane’s group of big league castoffs and misfits make a historic run. Based in history, there’s not a lot of suspense. And really, it’s more a subplot in the movie’s big picture.
Moneyball is a film about baseball. It’s a film about the power of cash. It’s about leadership, feelings of worth and family. A testament to Miller’s direction and the script by Sorkin and Zaillian, Moneyball takes on a lot yet remains both intelligent and entertaining throughout.