Moneyball Scores! A Recommendation from Steve

I used to be a big baseball fan. I’m not anymore. Back in those days I would get quite irritated by those who said baseball was too slow, boring even. I considered them to be barbarians. They couldn’t see and appreciate the subtlety, the poetry of the game. Each inning, each at-bat, held its own drama. I now find it difficult to sit through an entire game. (Although last night’s Game 6 was delightful!) Football has regained its place as my favorite sport. I mention this not simply because Moneyball is about baseball, but because watching it is a bit like watching baseball. In movie terms, football is like a summer blockbuster, whereas baseball is more often like a character-driven drama. Baseball is subtle. Baseball is nuance. Baseball is poetry. When a poem works for us, there is nothing more beautiful, more powerful. When it doesn’t work, when we can’t make the connection, we wonder what the fuss is about. Moneyball worked for me, so much so that it currently sits at the top of my 2011 movie rankings.

Moneyball is a good looking movie, but there is nothing flashy about it. The director, Bennett Miller, leads with a sure hand, but doesn’t show off. With this and the equally wonderful Capote under his belt, he is a director I’ll be keeping my eye on. The writing by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (who also penned The Social Network) is also strong, witty and poignant, without being overly sentimental. Look for their names at Oscar time. The flashiest element of the movie is the name of its star: Brad Pitt. His name provides the flash, but his performance as Billy Beane is powerful in its subtlety, its nuance, yes, its poetry. He could have used this as a star vehicle and swung for the fences, but he didn’t and the movie is all the better thanks to his restraint. One of the themes of the movie is that getting on base leads to scoring runs, which leads to winning games. A player’s true value is determined by how he uses his skills for the good of the team, even if that means being patient at the plate in order to draw a walk. The cast understands this premise, so the movie is filled with quietly effective performances, including Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the manager, Art Howe), and, especially, Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, the computer geek who provides a new way to evaluate players. I’m not a big fan of the kind of movies that have filled Hill’s career so far, but he blew me away here. He is able to convey so much with a glance, a raised eyebrow, a softly spoken line. Incredible. Again, look for his name at Oscar time.

If there is a weakness to the movie it is that, other than Beane and Brand, the characters are under developed, but I see this as a minor problem. I can understand Howe’s complaint that the movie does not give him the credit he is due as manager, and given that the A’s let him go after seasons of 102 and 103 wins seems to indicate that the team, or especially Beane, didn’t value his talents highly enough. If the movie’s goal was historical accuracy, Howe’s character may have been presented differently, but the movie is not overly concerned with such accuracy. It is tricky business to make a movie based on a true story, especially of events that happened less than a decade ago. But, more than history, the film seeks to give us metaphor, and the movie is all the better for this, also. The historical events do provide wonderful drama. It is the classic story of the triumph of the underdog as the poor team that is gutted of its superstars by the rich teams finds a way to win. This would have made a good movie. Indeed, I had tears rolling down my cheeks during a number of the game sequences. Yes, baseball can be exciting and quite moving in its drama. A simple, historical view of the 2002 A’s would still have been better than most of this summer’s movies, but Moneyball offers us even more. I’ve read reviews that complain that the movie ignores players that were instrumental in the team reaching 103 wins and a trip to the playoffs, especially the starting pitchers Zito, Hudson, and Mulder, who accounted for 57 wins. True, they are nearly invisible in the movie, but there is an obvious reason, they don’t fit in the metaphor. They were with the team before Brand showed Beane the new way to evaluate talent, or more importantly, a player’s value to the team. The movie focuses on Bradford and Hatteberg because they were players who the old system undervalued. That is the true power of this film. It gives us an opportunity to look at things in a new way. The great irony is that the new system, which relies on a computer and cold, hard facts, gave an opportunity to players who were left out in the old system that relied upon, among other things, the intuition of the scouts. See this movie and then ponder these things: how can we best uncover the gifts that the Bible tells us everyone has? How can we best use our gifts for the good of the team, or more broadly, for the good of others? What is truly the difference between losing and winning?