By Drew Williams ’13, Web Managing Editor
On paper it looks like a film about a computer generated scouting program used by Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics that doesn’t even achieve them a second round playoff berth. It could be dismissed as simply a Brad Pitt vehicle, or worse, another unnecessary sports drama. But as the saying goes, don’t judge a book (in this case Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis) by its cover. Moneyball rises above any preconceived notion of its limits and delivers a strong emotional performance, complete with relatable characters and an inspiring message. It is entertainment and storytelling at its best; a film that will make you laugh and move you all in the same scene. It even features a Gonzaga grad in numerous scenes, proving that it truly is a complete package.
The story centers on Billy Beane (excellently portrayed by Brad Pitt). He is the general manager of the playoff bound 2001 Oakland Athletics. The team loses in the first round to the New York Yankees, giving up a 2-0 series lead and a large lead late in the final game. In the off-season, the A’s top three players leave because other teams give them more lucrative offers. Beane, shown as a hot-headed player and general manager, is not one to conform, so he decides to ignore baseball precedent and look for a new way to recruit players, admitting that his team has no way to compete financially with teams such as the Yankees with five times the A’s payroll. Through a chance encounter, he runs into Peter Brand (a serious turn for actor Jonah Hill; however, he is still very funny, just not a Get Him to the Greek sort of funny), and they begin to reconfigure the A’s approach to picking up players by targeting those with a good on-base percentage who will come cheap because scouts have overlooked them. What follows is a thoughtful examination of what it really means to win, as well as how to put money aside and play for the love of the game. And in today’s results-dominated sports culture, a new definition of success certainly is not a bad thing.
Moneyball avoids being a typical sports story, and does not try to make up for lack of excitement by adding in dramatic subplots. It sticks to the story, which means that the most compelling sports action displayed is the grit shown by the A’s in their attempt for a league record twenty game win streak (but the result of that midseason battle is as much of a feel-good story as any last minute championship score). And that is a great thing because it allows the audience to get to understand Beane, who has many conflicting emotions resulting from his collapse as a player and his current position as a general manager at a disadvantage. Pitt provides a nuanced performance as Beane, and audiences accept him immediately as they come to see his failures, desires, and passionate need to change the system that he feels slighted him. The story is one of an evening of the playing-field in baseball, and is certainly a herald for the underdog; Pitt is able to lead viewers through it with his charismatic smile, and they don’t even realize that he’s teaching them something.
The movie has the blessing of being able to claim best-selling author Michael Lewis, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, director Bennett Miller, and first-rate actors Pitt, Hill, and Philip Seymour-Hoffman as its own. Considering the last Michael Lewis book made into a movie (The Blind Side) was an Oscar best picture nominee, and the last movie featuring a script written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, for which he won an Oscar for screen writing) was also a best picture nominee, no one should be surprised come January if Moneyball is a best picture nominee itself, especially considering the expanded field of ten films. Moneyball would certainly be a deserving candidate; it is an inspiring film that can be enjoyed by anyone, and Brad Pitt may be looking at an Oscar nomination for his first traditional sports film (sorry, Fight Club doesn’t count).
Moneyball is a movie for everyone; no one will walk out of the movie theater feeling unsatisfied. A love of the characters is developed over the short 126 minutes, and the message is one that will make viewers think more than most movies are able to do. However, it is easy to like Moneyball solely for its entertainment value. It is a very funny movie, and Sorkin is a stand-out on the production team. His writing is seamless and contains uplifting humor where audiences least expect it, without resorting to typical crude comedy antics. There are jokes about baseball, and yet they highlight something extremely impressive about this movie: you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. In fact, you don’t even have to be a sports fan. And yet, you will still be joining the entire theater in laughing, such as when Beane insists to manager Art Howe (Seymour-Hoffman) that he can’t play his favorite player, Carlos Peňa, that night at first base. “And why is that?” insists Howe with a flash of anger. “Because I just traded him,” Beane quips back. The situation is not helped when one of the other A’s big names, Jeremy Giambi, comes in a second later. “You wanted to see me?” “Yeah, Jeremy, you’ve been traded”, answers Beane, and then turning to Howe: “Oh yeah, Giambi’s gone too”. Those are the moments that make Moneyball stand out, and that will convince even the most critical viewer that sports stories still have plenty to offer.
Moneyball has roots on Eye Street. Gonzaga graduates of the class of 2002 may remember the football team’s starting quarterback that year, Reed Thompson. Thompson went off to the University of Texas, and like most Gonzaga graduates, he ended up… in a first-class Hollywood film? Yes; however, as he said in an interview for www.arlnow.com, he was not originally considering a career in acting. He did a few modeling shots for a friend, and these ended up in the hands of a producer for Sony, who decided he would make for a very good younger version of Brad Pitt. And so that’s where Reed ended up: playing the younger Billy Beane in Moneyball. He gets one of the most fun roles in the movie: he gets to look angry as the unsuccessful ballplayer Beane. This includes bat-throwing episodes after striking out time after time, and culminates in something every actor and baseball-player would love to do: he gets to snap his bat over his knee on the way back to the dugout. Thompson does a wonderful job being frustrated, but it is also very clear that he has the potential to do much more. He has said he will now pursue an acting career after having tried it, and who can blame him? How many actors get their big break by playing the same role as Brad Pitt in a major picture?
However, after all is said and done, the thing that will last with viewers long after the smell of buttery popcorn has gone is the idea the film presents. As the movie puts it, sports are not all about winning the last game of the season every year. Sports are about doing something you love and coming to know yourself through the experience. Doing everything possible to win may feel good at first, but it gets overshadowed by the self-satisfaction of working hard and playing within the game. The A’s were able to win with players that no one wanted, while others lost with the all-stars that teams were willing to give ridiculous contracts. Love of the game and desire are the only explanations for that. Beane never technically won, but he changed his outlook on life and affected the game of baseball forever in a way that altered a system he found unfair. Success really has no tangible measurement, but should be based on the difference the effort given has made in one’s life. Moneyball knows that and wishes to impart that to its audience. And as any author knows, it is much more effective to subtly put something into the text and let audiences discover it on their own than it is to flat-out state it. The team behind the movie makes sure to have all the important themes in there, but slips them in so that viewers can think about them on their own. Walking out of the theater, I couldn’t help but mull over that new idea of success in my mind.