Fans of Glasgow to the Movies on Facebook may have seen recently an article linked from the AVClub wherein a discussion is held over what makes a good book-to-film adaptation. The consensus seems to be some variation of the idea that filmmakers should not attempt to recreate the book line for line, but instead address the project from a higher level by asking, ““What in this book do I want to emphasize?” I noted that this is often the best way to approach a film review as well. That is, rather than looking at the movie as a whole and describing what did or did not work for you at different moments throughout, instead to polish some singular thought into a thesis and build the review around that.
With that said, what bowled me over about Moneyball is that it is not about baseball, nor is it about money… and though this fact is hinted at throughout, the deeper plot isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film. This is likely a view of the film that is far from the mainstream, but hear me out. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the general manager for the Oakland Athletics, the professional baseball team with the lowest budget in the U.S. When the team does find talent, like that of superstar Jason Giambi, it is quickly picked away by the big-league vultures – Giambi left Oakland for the New York Yankees at the height of his career. This cycle has worn on Beane’s nerves, leading him to take a chance on a young economist named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who has a radical theory about how a baseball team should be built. Instead of looking at a player’s overall performance, Brand’s method focuses primarily on on-base percentages (a cinematically simplified version of what is known as “sabermetrics“). Beane is desperate enough to put his full faith into Brand’s ideas, and as the movie progresses we witness many proponents of traditional scouting expressing their doubt and frustration in Beane’s decisions. A surface reading would view Beane as a pioneer and visionary, coolly standing up to an antiquated system and just generally coming out looking like a bad-ass.
But what isn’t said, or rather what is said but never addressed head-on, is the fact that this is a make-or-break deal for Beane. It’s true that his ex-wife and daughter both worry vocally about whether he will end up losing his job based on the team’s early performance with the new method, but there’s no serious discussion about the ramifications. The closest we come to an honest discussion arrives when Beane attempts to role-play with Brand the act of cutting a player from the roster. Brand’s soft-spoken nature makes it difficult for him to respond when Beane throws out the suggestion that the hypothetical player just purchased a house in the area, or that his child has just begun making friends at school and would have to be pulled out in the middle of the year if the player loses his job. This is precisely the predicament that Beane finds himself in. Though his 12-year old daughter does not live with him, his income will ensure that she is able to get into her college of choice when the time comes. And there is no middle ground with Brand’s methods: either the Oakland Athletics will startle everybody with their sudden victories, or the team will crash and burn in abject failure.
It’s a lose-lose for Beane. We see frequent flashbacks to his younger days, a high school ballplayer so skillful at the game that scouts come knocking at his door with large cash offers to play for their teams. It’s a difficult decision for a teen to make, whether to take the money and fame or to hold out for whatever success may come after finishing college. It’s no wonder that Beane agonizes daily over whether he made the right choice, decades down the line. As a brief aside, the film does a great job managing some complex emotion without the need for explosive outbursts. We can tell through Pitt’s performance that Beane’s bravura is false, and hints in his superstitious refusal to listen to his team’s games reveal an underlying nervousness that he hides with a confident facade. We don’t have to have Pitt break down in tears to allow these swirling feelings to be conveyed appropriately, and that sure-footedness in the filmmaking is extraordinary. Similarly, Jonah Hill surprises by stepping out of his comedic-fat-guy persona to play a man quietly certain of his skill and loyal to his friends; a step back shows how perfectly the characters serve as foils for one another, but in action their relationship is one of mutual respect. One of the most moving scenes in the film comes when Beane makes a tough call about which player to trade, cementing his commitment to Brand’s philosophy. The younger man, great concern in his eyes, asks whether his friend realizes the weight of what has just been done.
This same gentle handling of the character dynamic and plotting comes to light as we near the end of the film. Beane asks his daughter to sing aloud while playing an acoustic guitar and the camera focuses on him. Watching the girl with both sadness and pride on his face, he covers his mouth with one hand while his eyes hold back tears. Where he had two roads to choose from signing baseball contracts at his kitchen table as a teenager, he could only fail himself. Now, he has a beautiful daughter to consider – losing his job means not being able to provide for her; excelling with Brand’s philosophy means that his achievements might finally be recognized and he might be forced to move across the country from the girl, limiting their already fractured relationship ever more. But the genius thing is: this is not clear until late in the film, even though if we were looking for it we might have figured it out sooner.
But we’re too busy watching the business drama unfold. The backroom deals of professional baseball are indeed a goldmine of self-serving conflict, and the script by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian does a good job of retaining that corporate aesthetic while smoothing out the edges for a general audience. And, as any good sports movie should, it utilizes the underdog-to-superstar story of the A’s as an electrifying center to hold the pieces together. In short, Moneyball is a well-crafted and stirring piece of cinema.