erik lundegaard


Monday October 10, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball (2011)


I had trouble with the falsehoods but was won over by the poignancy.

The falsehoods begin immediately. The movie opens on Oct. 15, 2001, Game 5 of the American League Division Series between the Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees. A’s lose. But that’s not a falsehood.

A continent away, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the A’s, listens, then doesn’t; listens, then doesn’t. He’s at the park, alone. He’s in the cavernous underground of what was then called Network Associates Coliseum. Does he toss chairs? I forget. He’s a fairly mellow guy compared to the intense, dictatorial Billy Beane that Michael Lewis portrayed in his 2003 best-seller. Is it Pitt? Is it director Bennett Miller? Miller also directed “Capote,” and both are patient movies about cerebral men (Truman Capote; Billy Beane) dealing with vicious killers (Hickock and Smith; the New York Yankees). Call it a theme.

Poster for "Moneyball" (2011)But this change in Beane’s demeanor is not the falsehood I’m talking about.

Billy Beane’s A’s won 102 games in 2001, second-most in the American League, but they’re losing three top players to free agency: closer Jason Isringhausen (replaceable); center fielder Johnny Damon (replaceable); and first baseman Jason Giambi (irreplaceable). All three are signing with teams with more money. Most teams have more money than the A’s. Its 2001 payroll is $33 million, second-lowest in the Majors, while three teams, the Dodgers, the Red Sox (who nab Damon), and the Yankees (who grab Giambi), each spent more than $100 million. “It’s like we’re a farm system for the New York Yankees,” Beane says in the movie.

That’s definitely not a falsehood I’m talking about.

Beane says this as he sits down with his team of scouts, who are, for the most part, daft old men focusing on the inconsequential. This guy’s got a good face, that one’s got a good jaw, the other, nah, not him, he’s got an ugly girlfriend; means no confidence. Beane tries to focus them. “What’s the problem?” he keeps asking. He has to answer his own question. The problem is money. The problem is that the A’s are the runt of the litter. “We are the last dog at the bowl,” he says. “You know what happens to the last dog at the bowl? He dies.”

Good line. Do we credit screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) or screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”)? Feels like Sorkin.

So Beane tries to get more food in the bowl. He asks the A’s owner for more money. No dice. He asks the Cleveland Indians for this or that player. Fat chance. But he notices the dynamic in the Cleveland GM’s office. Another runt, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whispers in one man’s ear, who whispers in the GM’s ear, who makes the decision we’ve already seen cross Brand’s face. Afterwards, Beane tracks Brand down. “Who are you?” he asks.

Brand, it turns out, is a guy who studied economics at Yale. He likes numbers. And he sees the important numbers, called sabermetrics, hidden by a more traditional reading of baseball statistics. These numbers give us a truer reading of the talent of players. The Oakland A’s don’t need to buy players, Brand tells Beane; they need to buy wins, which you do by buying runs, which you do by buying on-base percentage, which is a stat other teams aren’t paying attention to in 2001 and thus can be had for cheap. In essence, Brand tells him the lesson of “Moneyball,” which is the lesson of the stock market, which is where Michael Lewis began his career: Beane needs to buy what is undervalued and sell what is overvalued. In this way, a team with a $33 million payroll can compete with a team with a $110 million payroll.

So what’s the first thing Beane buys? Brand. He makes him assistant general manager. And off they go with their grand experiment.

Nice. But it means this: Billy Beane didn’t know about sabermetrics until the 2001-02 off-season.

That’s the falsehood I’m talking about. It skews everything.

In reality, Beane learned about sabermetrics from the previous A’s GM, Sandy Alderson, who learned about it from Bill James, a security guard out of Kansas who forever changed the way we look at baseball statistics. I became a Jamesian in ’93, late to the game, 15 years late, which is about the time Billy Beane became a Jamesian, too. And by the time he took over as general manager of the A’s, in 1998, he was ready. Within two years, his last-place team with no money was in the post-season. And by the 2001-02 off-season, Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodestra (read: Brand), were so deep into the numbers they could hardly see light. Or maybe they could see nothing but light. Either way, Beane knew.

So: “Moneyball,” the book, is about a guy who, over a decade, revolutionized the way Major League baseball teams are run.

“Moneyball,” the movie, is about a guy who listened to another, smarter guy, for one season, then gets all the credit for revolutionizing the way Major League baseball teams are run.

Doesn’t sit right.

At the same time, it has to be one season, doesn’t it? I wrote as much seven years ago in an MSN piece ranking baseball movies. “It’s better to focus on a season than a career,” I wrote. “Probably because the rhythm of a season is closer to a dramatic arc than the rhythm of a life.”

So Miller and his All-Star screenwriters, Zaillian and Sorkin, focus on the rhythm of a season. And to get everyone in the audience up-to-speed on sabermetrics, they reduce the protagonist, the sabermetrics expert, Billy Beane, to a blank slate regarding sabermetrics. As Beane learns, so do we.

All of which makes cinematic sense.

But if you know the story, it still doesn’t sit right. It’s like watching a movie about FDR in which, during his second term in office, an assistant gives him the bright idea of starting, say, a “New Deal,” to help get America out of the Great Depression. You can’t help but wonder what the cinematic FDR was he doing during his first term.

Scene from "Moneyball," the movie

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But what’s done is done, right? Let’s go with it. Onward.

As Brand teaches Beane about sabermetrics (recreating Jason Giambi “in the aggregate”), Beane teaches Brand about the ballsier aspects of baseball and life: how to stand up to scouts and managers; how to ignore the press, which is to say conventional wisdom; how to fire people. Beane is comfortable in the macho world of baseball players because he was once a baseball player himself, which we see in flashbacks with an actor who doesn’t much look like a young Brad Pitt. Beane was a first-round draft choice back in 1980. He wanted to go to Stanford, he would’ve gotten a free ride to Stanford, but the scouts paid attention to him and waved money in front of him and so his life changed. For the worse. Because he wasn’t that good. He wasted 10 years of his life trying to become what they thought he should become. In this way Beane knows more than anyone how wrong scouts can be.

Much of the charm of the movie is in the back-and-forth between the wide-eyed Brand and the amused Beane. Hill is good, better than I thought he would be, but Pitt is a marvel. He’s loose. He’s charming. He seems to be improvising—not sure if he is—and continues the tradition, first noticed in the “Oceans” movies, of forever stuffing food in his face. He seems like he’s having the time of his life playing this role.

Critics, by the way, who thought “Moneyball” couldn’t be made into a movie either didn’t read “Moneyball” or know nothing about movies in general and baseball movies in particular. Yes, the book is about sabermetrics, which is a big word, but it’s also about the triumph of the underdog, which is what most movies are about. It’s about gathering a group of misfits—Scott Hatteberg, a catcher who could no longer throw, and Chad Bradford, a relief pitcher with a goofy, submarine motion—who coalesce into a winning team, which is what most baseball movies are about. (See: “Bad News Bears,” “Bull Durham,” “Major League.”)

And as with most baseball misfit movies, the A’s begin the season poorly—which is true, they sucked for the first two months of 2002—and the sports press, or at least sports talk radio, circles around Beane and his “experiment.” Manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) isn’t using the team properly, starting the wrong guys and bringing in the wrong relievers, but Beane gets the blame.

This is another thing the movie doesn’t get quite right: how polite and deferential Beane is to Howe. You don’t get that feeling in the book. The A’s in the book, the real A’s, talk about how the organization was unlike any other Major League organization in this respect: It was run by the GM on a day-to-day basis. It was Billy Beane’s show, they said. Everyone knew it. Even Art Howe knew it. Yet in the movie, Beane is polite and deferential to Howe, while Howe is disrespectful to Beane. He doesn’t listen.

So Beane makes him listen. He trades Jeremy Giambi, Jason’s ne’er-do-well brother, to Philadelphia for John Mabry (bad deal), then trades Howe’s favorite first baseman, Carlos Pena, who plays in place of Beane’s guy, Hatteberg (bad deal). So now Howe has to play Hatteberg at first.

In reality, these trades were made months apart. More, Howe didn’t bench Hatteberg. Hatteberg played consistently throughout the 2002 season. His plate appearances by month: 99, 92, 101, 89, 97, 90. Consistent.

But we’ll go with it. Onward.

So Beane makes his trades and the team begins to win: 10 in a row, 15 in a row. What’s the record? 19 in a row. They tie it. This team of misfits that no one thought would go anywhere has actually tied the Major League record for consecutive victories. Can they set the record? Can they win their 20th game in a row?

Let’s talk about that 20th game. I’ll describe the action as we see it in the movie and I want you to find the falsehoods. It’s instructive. We can learn a lot about Hollywood and baseball by figuring out what Hollywood felt it needed to add to increase the drama of baseball.

As the game begins, we see Billy Beane driving away from the park. He never watches the games—they make him too nervous—and besides he has things to do. But then he gets a call from his daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey), who is watching the game, and she tells him he needs to watch it, too. It’s amazing, she says. So he turns around, enters the park, and sees the A’s are up 11-0 in the third inning. And they’re playing one of the worst teams in baseball, the Kansas City Royals, a team without money, like the A’s, but without smarts, either. Plus the A’s have their best pitcher, Tim Hudson (15-9, 2.98 ERA), on the mound. Done deal.

But just as he arrives it all begins to unravel. The Royals score five runs in the top of the 4th to cut the lead in half and five more in the top of the 8th. It’s now 11-10 and Beane is no longer watching the game. He’s in the cavernous underground of Network Associates Coliseum, cursing. And in the top of the 9th? With two outs and a guy on second? Closer Billy Koch gives up a single that ties the game.


But it’s still a tie game. There’s still a chance. And in the bottom of the 9th, Art Howe points to Scott Hatteberg, the converted catcher whom Billy Beane thought could Jason Giambi at first base, but who isn’t playing this game, and tells him to pinch hit. And he does. And with one out in the bottom of the 9th inning Hatteberg hits a homerun to win this incredible, improbable game, and the A’s, these misfit A’s, set the Major League record for consecutive victories with 20.


So where’s the falsehood? The homerun in the bottom of the 9th inning? The fact that it was Hatteberg? That he pinch-hit? That the A’s lost an 11-0 lead to the worst team in baseball only to pull it out in the end?

Nope. The falsehood is Casey calling her father to tell him to watch the game. In reality, at least in the reality of Michael Lewis’s book, Beane was in Art Howe’s office, talking to Lewis, and Beanephoned her to tell her to watch the game, but she wasn’t interested. She was too busy watching “American Idol” to care about her father’s team.

How is this instructive? In this way. Baseball, with its come-from-behind chances and bottom-of-the-ninth-inning homeruns, will always be more dramatic, more improbable, than what the best minds in Hollywood can imagine. That’s why it’s a great game. Meanwhile, whatever the best minds in Hollywood can imagine is lost on most of us, because we’re too busy watching crap like “American Idol.” That’s why we’re a lost cause.

Scene from "Moneyball," the movie

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As I’m watching “Moneyball,” as I’m seeing these few falsehoods mixed in with attention to detail and concern for veracity, I keep wondering: How are they going to handle the ending?

I knew the ending. The 2002 Oakland A’s, after losing Jason Giambi, et al., won one more game than the 2001 A’s but still lost in the first round of the playoffs—this time to the small-market Minnesota Twins. Which means the ending is like the beginning. We begin with Game 5 failure and end with Game 5 failure. All that work for the same result. It won’t resonate.

I also knew this: Nothing Billy Beane did during the next 10 years helped his team to the World Series. The A’s, a powerhouse in the early 2000s, haven’t even sniffed the post-season since 2006. They’ve fallen back with the also-rans.

So how do you make this dramatic? How do you make it resonate?

Bad baseball fan. I forgot the first, great rule of baseball drama, which was delineated by Roger Kahn in “The Boys of Summer,” his nostalgic memoir about covering the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers. Kahn wrote:

You may glory in team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.

It’s the horsehide equivalent of Shelley:

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

So the A’s lose the 2002 ALDS—a mere, slow-mo blip on the movie screen—just as they lost the 2001 ALDS, and Billy Beane, who struggled so hard to make this work, is left alone with his thoughts. He’d already said that the sabermetrics experiment means nothing unless they win it all. They didn’t so it didn’t. And director Bennett Miller pauses and let’s it all sink in.

Bennett Miller is good at pausing and letting it all sink in.

Not everyone, of course, thinks the experiment means nothing. Sure, there are naysayers out there, people who forget how little Beane had to work with, and who blast the “Moneyball” experiment; but the Boston Red Sox, with money to burn, think Billy Beane is onto something. In fact, they invite him to Boston, give him a tour of historic Fenway Park, the oldest park in Major League Baseball, and offer him their GM position (which he ultimately turns down). They offer to pay him more than $12 million over several years. And Boston’s owner, John Henry (Arliss Howard), tells him the following: “You’re the first guy through the wall. You always get bloody.”

Nice line.

Then Paul Brand meets Beane at Network Associates Coliseum. He takes him to the video room to show him footage of a college player named Jeremy Brown. Both the video room and Jeremy Brown figured big in “Moneyball,” the book, but neither is much mentioned or seen in “Moneyball,” the movie, until this moment.

In the footage, Brown, a fat catcher out of Alabama, gets hold of a pitch and drives it and rounds first base. He’s thinking double or triple. But he’s overweight and not graceful—that’s why the scouts dismiss him, and part of the reason why Beane, who was slim and graceful as a young player, doesn’t—and Brown actually stumbles. He falls flat on his face. Then he struggles, like a drowning man, to get back to first base before he’s thrown out. Which is when the others on the field, holding back their laughter, tell him. The ball wasn’t a double or triple. It went over the wall. And he gets up, dusts himself off, and rounds the bases.

“He hit a homerun and didn’t even realize it,” Brand tells Beane.

Then he pauses, looking at Beane, and a beautiful thing happens. He adds, “It’s a metaphor,” and Beane, half-annoyed, says, “I know it’s a metaphor.”

How perfect is that? Our All-Star screenwriters, by using the personalities of their main characters— Brand, wide-eyed and endearing, but presuming to teach the teacher, Beane, who is savvy and impatient—manage to inform the less-savvy among us the point of the scene without insulting the rest of us. While charming the rest of us.

Afterwards, Beane gets into his car, drives home, and listens to a CD his daughter Casey made for him. Earlier in the movie, when they’re in a music store, she sings him this song. It’s called “The Show,” originally by Lenka, an Australian singer, but its lyrics, not to mention its tone, fit into this story as easily as a hand fits into a baseball glove.

Casey sings:

Slow it down
Make it stop--
Or else my heart is going to pop

Slowing it down is something Moneyball players do with the game. It’s what Scott Hatteberg does with the game. He slows it down. He takes his pitches. He makes the game come to him rather than trying to impose himself on the game.

Casey sings:

I am just a little girl lost in the moment
I'm so scared but I don't show it
I can't figure it out
It's bringing me down I know
I've got to let it go
And just enjoy the show

All the while the camera closes in on Beane—the man who’s lost in the moment, who’s scared and doesn’t show it. He’s the first man through the wall and he’s bloody. He’s hit a homerun and doesn’t know it. And now this simple advice from his daughter: Just enjoy the show. “The Show,” what players call the Major Leagues, and “the show,” what we call the movie, and what we sometimes call life. And the camera closes in on his profile, driving, looking straight ahead, caught in this moment of indecision and tension but possible epiphany and release. And I thought: Please end it here, at this everyman moment, this moment of simple advice possibly listened to for at least this day. And they do. That’s where they end it.

I came to “Moneyball” with a lot of baggage: a fan of the game, a fan of the book, a fan of the theory behind the book. Yes, I had trouble with some of the ways the filmmakers falsified the book. Yes, I felt the misfit theme could have been dramatized better. But Miller and Zaillian and Sorkin took the most difficult part, the inconclusive ending, and made it touching. They made it resonate. They gave us something beautiful to carry with us from the theater. Why can’t more movies do this? Why can’t movie people realize that we don’t want what we say we want. We want this. We want the exact feeling “Moneyball” leaves us with.

Posted at 06:32 AM on Monday October 10, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011