By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Illustrating how impressed I was with director Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” the first person I called after exiting the theater was Hal, my friend and go-to source for all things baseball. The conversation went like this: “I just saw a film that will zoom right up into your first division of all-time best baseball movies.”
“That good, huh?”
Ah, brevity, indeed the soul of wit.
Anyway, I then proceeded to give the play-by-play, including an analysis of Brad Pitt’s fine performance as Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics GM who championed the use of computerized baseball statistics to make scouting/personnel/roster decisions. While it’s not certain he will win the Academy Award, there’s little doubt he’ll be in the playoffs.
Before signing off, I voiced a hesitation to research the story screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian adapted from Michael Lewis’s book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” This is, among other things, a starry-eyed and whimsical David and Goliath saga, and it would be sad to find out the director was throwing a spitter.
But a delve into the facts quelled my fears. While there is some artistic embellishment, Miller’s grand slam is otherwise free of the literary steroids that now place an asterisk next to old standards like “The Babe Ruth Story” (1948). Too bad politicians don’t emulate the integrity our newer filmmakers evince. Hopefully, life will soon imitate art.
Of course, like all great sports stories, it’s more than just a sports story. Played as counterpoint to the primary plot are flashbacks telling us about Billy’s ill-starred baseball career, and how the former phenom came to managerial prominence in the Big Show. To quote Bogey’s Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” it’s “The stuff dreams are made of.”
And nightmares, too. Literally the account of a game changer, Beane suffers the boos and catcalls that have greeted pioneers in every field— not just those painted with diamonds— since time immemorial. It’s old versus new, with all the fear and loathing that accompanies revolutions both large and small. Especially where money is concerned.
Fact is, money is at the root of this major watershed in how teams now pick their players. Just off a season-ending loss in the ALDS, Billy meets Yalie computer wiz Peter Brand, purportedly the real-life Paul DePodesta, though he actually went to Harvard. Either way, superbly portrayed by Jonah Hill, the baseball savvy nerd hits a homer with Billy.
Call it a scientifically influenced variation on the maxim taught by Mafioso in “The Godfather” (1972): It’s business, not personal. Meaning we should isolate the game-
winning data from the albeit colorful but largely anecdotal information that has peppered scouting reports ever since Abner Doubleday first yelled “Play ball!” This is threatening.
Feathers ruffled, their dugout under attack, the old boy jock establishment that makes up the Athletics’s scouting staff rails at the new system Billy is instituting. Called sabermetrics, which evolved from the acronym SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), the concept’s goal is to weed out subjectivity and mine the empirical truths.
For example, when one hardened pro says that so and so ballplayer draws too many walks, Billy looks to Pete and asks, “Do we care if he walks or gets a hit?”
“We do not,” responds Pete with a smug finality that runs a chill through everything they’ve held sacred. A new season underway, Billy and Pete proceed to build a ball club.
What follows is a traditional pennant chase, but with high SATs, and a witty look at the changing of the guard. Billy is seen as totally loony as a result of his picks…a ragtag group of bargain basement rejects who, somewhere in the zeroes and ones of computer intelligence, are destined to score more runs than their high-priced, celebrity counterparts.
As the season churns on, it doesn’t look good for the experiment. Maybe the old boys are right. But to quote the words in the center of my alma mater’s seal, “Est modus in rebus,” or, for the few non-Latin speaking, “There is a mean to all things.” Heretofore distancing himself from the locker room, Billy does a full reverse and becomes the catalytic spark.
That is, he adds the human element. In turn, we cheer for the second chance underdogs, paupers who would be princes. And, via the war between the film’s reactionaries and radicals, we enjoy one of the best ever treatises on the ethos of baseball. Caught up in his own whirlwind, Billy dreamily asks, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Adding to the humanistic angle and making for a great double play combination is Billy’s touching rapport with his wiser-than-her-years offspring, Casey (Kerris Dorsey). Any guy with a daughter can tell you they got it right. Enthralled and enlightened by this celebration of the national pastime, you wish “Moneyball” would go into extra innings.
“Moneyball,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Bennett Miller and stars Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Running time: 133 minutes
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