The writing shines in dense and rewarding ‘Moneyball’

Posted by · 11:53 am · September 13th, 2011

Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” is a tightly constructed piece of work, thematically layered, rich in substance, hard work from two of the best writers in the business clearly evident. And the last thing it is is a sports movie.

The film is about so much. It’s a David vs. Goliath story of changing the status quo. It’s a journey through the hardship of self-confidence. Most importantly, though, for me, it’s a story about the quest for the unattainable being the reward.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, a former hot baseball prospect out of high school who passed on a Stanford scholarship for a chance to go pro. He was smooth-talked by scouts who knew, with every fiber of their being, that this guy had what it took. And anyone in their right mind would have paid handsomely for him to come to their team and prove them right. But Beane’s journey through the sport became one of understanding that no one knows anything about another man’s destiny.

Beane became a scout himself after bottoming out as a player and eventually made his way to the position of General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, where he found himself again suffocated by the accepted order of things. All of this is told in flashback (a dicey tactic that is nevertheless pulled off nicely because of how it’s eventually tied up by writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin). Faced with a much smaller pocket book than rich teams like the New York Yankees, Beane knew he had to do something else, anything else, in order to win.

What this gave way to, I’m sure all baseball fans are aware, is sabermetrics, a system that measures in-game statistics as a gauge for winning, never figuring in stud stats or aiming at reeling in big fish players. As Jonah Hill’s Yale economics grad says to Beane in the film, “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins you need to buy runs.” It kind of sounds like fool-proof logic but it was a scary thing when it was first proposed by statistician Bill James 30 years ago and it was ignored for years by crabby scouts and front office types who felt that, in order to buy wins, you had to buy superstars. And this is to say nothing of the money quotient involved. With lacking stars comes lacking attendance, lacking sales, lacking agent bonuses, etc. Talk about messing with livelihoods.

(In some ways, that makes the story one focused on the fundamentals of the game. But I will admit there is something lost in dramatizing this method, turning players with lives and hopes and dreams into mere pieces on a chess board. The script attempts to reconcile that with Beane’s philosophy on having to fire or trade personnel. “Would you rather take five shots to the chest or one shot to the head?” But it doesn’t fully alleviate the fact that the passion from the players’ perspective is whittled to incidentals in Beane’s risky game.)

All of that is really just the background in “Moneyball” to me, though. It’s the frame for a much more profound story. Based on Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” it’s easy to see why smart people, producers like Pitt, Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin, saw so much potential in its pages.

I was struck by Beane’s relationship to the baseball stadium in the film. He doesn’t watch the games. He doesn’t even like to be on the field. During game time, he’s in the back, working out, every once in a while glancing at the television, if at all. The film even opens with him, alone in his truck, listening to the Athletics lose the 2001 American League Division series to the studded New York Yankees on a portable radio.

I think Bennett Miller — in his first at-bat (sorry, had to get one pun in) since 2005’s “Capote” — directed the hell out of this thing and probably gave it more of a resonating touch than the usually chilly Steven Soderbergh might have lent it. (Soderbergh was, for a time, attached to direct). And given a story already somewhat hindered by the distancing elements of the parenthetical above, the last thing it needed was Soderbergh’s icy touch. But the thematic depths Miller and his writers plumb here really stick.

In one scene, for instance, Beane races back to watch his team make history, only to see them nearly miss that mark. One shot of a dark cloud drifting over the stadium lights is all Miller needed to tell that story before Beane retreats back to his place in the depths of the building. Later, when Beane takes a meeting at Fenway Park with a Red Sox owner looking to shake things up with his team, torrential downpour outside tells the story. Beane is not welcome on the field. It’s not his place, in baseball or in history.

And that’s the story of “Moneyball” to me. It’s the story of finding your place, making your impact and having the confidence to know that this is the thing.

Brad Pitt is exceptional as Beane, even if he gives the character a swagger that sometimes reads superficially. Still, Beane (as a character, mind you — I’m sure much of this is dramatized) has to emit self-assurance if he’s going to pull this off, so it plays. Jonah Hill is serviceable as the (composited) 25-year-old who keys Beane onto sabermetrics, while Philip Seymour Hoffman gives another great character performance as Athletics coach Art Howe, who butts heads with Beane over his formula-driven philosophy.

Wally Pfister’s photography deserves a notice for capturing the Northern California gloom both practically and thematically, and Christopher Tellefsen’s film editing is absolutely worth noting for its balance of silent moments and impactful shot selections. The interplay of imagery Miller works with is significant here and kind of hard to explain, but it’s delicate and complex all at once.

I’ve gone and written way more words on this film than I anticipated. I appreciate it for the focused character study that it is. But oddly, I have a hard time seeing the Academy fully embracing it. Pitt would seem to be a good possibility for Best Actor recognition, and the respect Zaillian and Sorkin command (not to mention their classy work on the page) could find room. But I’m not yet convinced there will be enough members slotting this in at #1 on their ballots to assure a Best Picture nomination. It’s all too possible they’ll read it as “just a baseball movie,” but the good news is there is a lot of commercial value here, and that will be crucial.

But I’m happy taking from it what I have: a textured examination of a grown man only now finding his path. Some never do.

[Photo: Columbia Pictures]

→ 30 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

30 responses so far

  • 1 9-13-2011 at 12:09 pm

    Pointedfinger said...

    Not exactly a correction, I just thought it was interesting that Jonah Hill’s character is based on a real person, Paul Depodesta, who was an ivy league educated 20-something who introduced Beane to the concept of sabermetrics. Apparently he had become uncomfortable with his image as a stats geek and refused to allow his name to be used in the film, although he did participate with the production.

  • 2 9-13-2011 at 12:13 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Yeah I should clarify that a bit. But thanks.

  • 3 9-13-2011 at 12:15 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Good news. Now we’ve got “Drive” this weekend, “Moneyball” next weekend, and–guilty pleasure–“What’s your Number?” the weekend after that.

  • 4 9-13-2011 at 12:19 pm

    Andrew M said...

    With Contagion, Drive, Moneyball, and 50/50 it looks like I will have more fun in awkward September month then I did all summer.

  • 5 9-13-2011 at 1:03 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Excited for this movie, even more so after reading this… I love Pitt and baseball so this is a win-win for me.

    It will be tough to relive the 2001 season though, as a die-hard Yankees fan the ALCS was great, but damn the World Series was TERRIBLE.

  • 6 9-13-2011 at 1:37 pm

    m1 said...

    I’m not a baseball fan at all, but for some reason, I want to see this.

  • 7 9-13-2011 at 1:41 pm

    Patryk said...

    Mike, it was absolutely terrible. Poor Mo. Still can’t wait to see this (there is an actor credited as Jorge Posada). Go NYY.

  • 8 9-13-2011 at 1:45 pm

    Tom C. said...

    I’m totally stoked that you liked the movie, Kris. I Hope that the majority of America’s critics start generating similar opinions.

  • 9 9-13-2011 at 1:54 pm

    Graysmith said...

    Not every movie needs to be a Best Picture kind of movie. As long as it’s a good movie, I’m happy.

    I’d imagine this will have a tough time getting into the Best Picture race since films about or revolving around sport rarely get that kind of respect. Like you said, it’s “just a baseball movie”, not a “real” Best Picture movie. And looking back, if you ignore Seabiscuit the last sports-themed Best Picture nominee was Field of Dreams in 1989.

  • 10 9-13-2011 at 2:04 pm

    Andrew M said...

    The Blind Side got in, though that had a lot of other factors going for it.

  • 11 9-13-2011 at 2:06 pm

    James said...

    Any reason why September seems to be the most promising of almost any month this year? Contagion(enjoyed), Drive(can’t f*ckin wait), Moneyball(looking forward to it), 50/50(same).

  • 12 9-13-2011 at 2:07 pm

    SC said...

    Boxing is a sport, so “The Fighter” would count.

  • 13 9-13-2011 at 2:23 pm

    kel said...

    If The Blind Side can get nominated and score a win for Bullock, this can at least get nominated

  • 14 9-13-2011 at 2:28 pm

    Pointedfinger said...

    Point of interest: both the Blind Side and Moneyball were written by the same author, Michael Lewis, who also wrote Liars Poker and The Big Short, which could also get a film treatment.

  • 15 9-13-2011 at 2:55 pm

    JJ1 said...

    ‘Field of Dreams’ not count? Or is it a different type of baseball movie?

    ‘Moneyball’ seems to me to be very ‘The Town’-ish as far as it’s Oscar prospects go. And both came out in September.

    ‘The Town’ seemed on the cusp of a BP nom, but not a sure thing. Also on the cusp was screenplay. And it did get an acting nom.

    ‘Moneyball’ seems on-the-cuspy for the same categories. Only difference being s. actor and actor.

  • 16 9-13-2011 at 3:03 pm

    tony rock said...

    You say Hill is serviceable. Others say he deserves a nomination. Why the discrepancy you think?

  • 17 9-13-2011 at 4:37 pm

    Ben said...

    Thanks for this great review. The creative team they assembled, form Brad Pitt to Aaron Sorkin, is really incredible.
    It’s unfortunate that Jonah Hill was merely “serviceable”, but I’ll reserve my judgements until I see it for myself :)
    I love when sports movies are about everything but sports!

    a film fan

  • 18 9-13-2011 at 4:50 pm

    JTag said...

    m1, I’m not really a baseball fan (more of a general overall sports fan), but I am a math geek, and the book was just phenomenal. I read it for the numbers, but was completely stunned by how much heart it had (the Jeremy Brown stuff was awesome). It really had you pulling for the A’s and the guys they brought on board. I’m really looking forward to this one.

  • 19 9-13-2011 at 4:56 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Miller really proved himself a fantastic director with “Capote,” so not too surprised he did another great job here.

  • 20 9-13-2011 at 5:10 pm

    Juan said...

    Ok time to switch George Clooney for Bennet Miller in directing and the best actor line up is set already damn that was early

  • 21 9-13-2011 at 5:31 pm

    mickey said...

    Sounds like it could be a Jerry Maguire, a sports pic of sorts nommed for best pic and Cruise, and won for Gooding

  • 22 9-13-2011 at 5:43 pm

    Ben M. said...

    The book is a favorite of mine, so all the good word the film has generated in the last week is great to hear.

    I also have questions about the oscar potential of the film, but it has a much better shot than most sports movies given the oscar nominees and winners in key positions in the production, and let us not forget that the last sports movie based on a Michael Lewis book got a BP nom (and from weaker source material IMO). But while it would be nice if the film got oscar recognition if it is deserving, I’d be far happier with just having an adaptation of the book that I enjoy.

  • 23 9-13-2011 at 5:57 pm

    Keith said...

    I’ve never been a fan of Pitt, but I must say he has really matured as an actor. For several years now he’s been showing a depth and a commitment to his characters I wouldn’t have predicted early on. Maybe I was one of those knuckleheads who believed he couldn’t be that good because he was so movie starish good looking. He’s been slowly proving me and anyone else who thought that wrong.

  • 24 9-13-2011 at 6:24 pm

    Jesse Crall said...

    Great news.

    @Keith: Yeah, I only really liked Pitt in comedy (True Romance, Burn After Reading, Snatch) until recently. I don’t think I was put off by his good looks so much as he really is improving. He owned Tree of Life and based on Kris’ and other reviews out of Toronto, Pitt’s on his game again.

  • 25 9-13-2011 at 6:32 pm

    Keith said...

    Jesse, I agree about Pitt in Tree of Life. If it were up to me, he’d be nominated for supp actor for his role in that, no question. I have misgivings about the film overall, though I liked it very much. But Pitt sort of stunned me. Beautifully subtle work. He totally understood that character.

  • 26 9-13-2011 at 7:12 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Though I wouldn’t nominate him, I also found Pitt’s work in Benjamin Button to be a step-up, dramatically.

  • 27 9-13-2011 at 7:51 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Benjamin Mutebutton was such a waste of a nomination in a number of categories. Neither one of Brangelina should’ve been nominated over Hawkins and Farrell, but oh well.

    I can see The Town-esque things for this, too. Either just Pitt or maybe Adapted Screenplay, as that category seems to be weakening a bit.

  • 28 9-13-2011 at 8:59 pm

    Ryan Sartor said...

    I’m very excited to see this film, but I think that Soderbergh is probably the most consistently great director working in and outside the studio system today. I’m sure his take on the material would be much different than Miller’s, but I don’t think it would be too cold.

    I found that the book “Moneyball” was quite cold, in the best way possible: It did not feature a daughter, ex-wife, or any real emotion from Billy Beane at all.

    That being said, I don’t think such coldness would have translated well to the big screen, but I’m glad Miller, Pitt and the screenwriters found a way to make it work.

    All of THAT being said, I haven’t seen the movie, so why am I so opinionated about it?

    Also, this is a great review, Kris.

  • 29 10-12-2011 at 7:48 pm

    Film Slate Magazine said...

    This is by far one of the best films of the year and should hopefully be up for an Oscar during awards season.

  • 30 12-02-2012 at 1:48 am

    Vitoria said...

    Yeah, everyone could kind of catch his drift. But I have a strnog interest in the English? language and was just wondering. I notice when people misuse English that’s all.