Moneyball (United States, 2011)
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Story by: Stan Chervin, based on the book by Michael Lewis
Written by: Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Adapting a book written by a finance journalist about sports statistics sounds like no easy task, but it’s made considerably easier when nestled amongst the DIPS, LIPS and PECOTAs of the book’s statistical analyses sits a classic Hollywood Bad News Bears rags-to-riches sporting tale.
The non-fiction source, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, delves deep into data analysis and projection modeling to explain sabermetrics, a modern sports science dedicated to determining the Major League Baseball players who contribute most to their team’s wins for the least amount of money. The team which first embraced the sabermetric philosophy on an organisation-wide scale was the Oakland Athletics, headed by former Major Leaguer Billy Beane (played in the film by Brad Pitt, who seems increasingly unwilling to lose himself in his roles and instead plays Beane as Brad Pitt with a baseball cap), who exploited the powerful but relatively unknown technique to build a team which won as many games as the New York Yankees in the 2001-2002 season despite spending 60% less on payroll.
Lewis’s book combines these two sides of the Athletics’ story – hardcore statistical evaluation of the sabermetrics philosophy, dramatic sports fairytale – into a singular whole, bridging them by way of Billy Beane himself, who found a way to profit off undervalued players earlier than anyone else.
Hollywood’s adaptation of another of Lewis’s nonfiction books, The Blind Side, cut loose the book’s “A” story (the evolution of offensive tactics in American Football since the early 1980s) and focused on what was essentially its “B” story, the account of troubled but promising tackler Michael Oher’s upbringing and eventual passage into American football history. Similarly, Moneyball is less about facts, figures and tables and, though it is unapologetically smart, is more concerned with the personal drama of the Billy Beane character, predicted by scouting experts to play a long and successful career after being drafted in the first round of the 1980 draft, but who instead faltered in the majors and by 1989 found himself a journeyman hitter on the dirt-poor Oakland A’s via three other teams.
His own experiences with a scouting system concerned more with gut feel and intangibles than raw statistics informs his decision to turn his back on conventional wisdom and instead rely on sabermetrics when he is made the A’s general manager, and with the help of a bookish young economics graduate by the name of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) turns baseball entirely on its ear.
Sorkin is usually a master at wielding the razor and condensing stories into only what is absolutely necessary, but Moneyball loses some of its impact by attempting to show too many aspects of Beane’s life and their effect on his personal and professional growth. He is insecure and unsure of himself in matters of his personal life, virtually estranged from his ex-wife and reluctant to allow himself involvement in his daughter’s life, but, as successful coaches often are, the opposite is true when it comes to his team: Beane the GM pours himself into his work, full of bravado to the point of cockiness and challenging the baseball establishment with rebellious glee.
But there are precious few scenes of Beane interacting with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), his ex (Robin Wright) and her new man, and a lot of emotional exposition has to be packed into just a few minutes which feel dreadfully disjointed from the rest of the film. To allow those scenes the space they needed to breathe would have better developed Beane’s character motivations, but also would have extended the film’s already two-hour-plus running time. It’s a tough balancing act but one that could have been achieved by cutting some of the film’s more superfluous scenes and characters. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the team’s old-school contrarian coach, is almost entirely unnecessary to the plot and exists solely to aggravate Beane through the baseball season.)
Sorkin managed to turn a story about dorm-dwelling computer programmers into Academy Award gold (The Social Network), and has again turned difficult source material into a slick and snappy screenplay which will find its name plastered all over Oscar voting forms come the new year. Unfortunately, unlike his character, producer Brad Pitt wasn’t able to make all the pieces completely fit together and play as a team.