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‘Moneyball’ redefines the baseball movie

By Brian Tabakin

Section: Arts

October 7, 2011

When I went to see “Moneyball” this past weekend, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I walked in knowing the movie was based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Having read the book, I was interested to see if screenwriter Aaron Sorkin would be able to successfully adapt the book to the big screen. The opening scene answered that question.

The movie opens with footage from the 2001 American League Divisional Round Playoffs between the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees. The screen then fades to a graphic with the text “Oakland Athletics vs. New York Yankees: Elimination Game.” Soon after, that text fades and is then replaced with “$39,722,689 vs. $110,181,143.” This text underscores the premise of the entire movie: a small market baseball team trying to compete with a large market team with a substantially larger payroll.

After suffering a devastating loss to the Yankees in Game Five of the 2001 American League Division Series, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, is forced to rebuild his team from scratch on a limited payroll after their three franchise players, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen all leave to play for large-market teams.

Beane goes to Cleveland to discuss a trade with Mike Shapiro (Reed Diamond), the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians; Shapiro rejects all of Beane’s trade proposals. In Cleveland, however, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Brand is promoting a new way of scouting based on statistics. Beane acquires him and enlists his help to rebuild the Oakland Athletics.

“Moneyball” is not the typical baseball film. It’s a mix of “Bad News Bears” and statistics. The opening scenes do a fantastic job of relating the dull subject of baseball statistics to the casual fan through Pitt’s charisma and Hill’s humor. The efforts to make the film relatable to the casual audience, however, do a disservice to its source material.

A red flag is immediately raised in the very beginning when Beane takes a plane to discuss a trade with the Indians. Any casual sports fan will know that all trades are discussed via telephone. The plane ride is a convenient tactic to introduce Hill into the film but it fails to provide a semblance of realism.

There is also a great deal of asymmetry when dealing with the “misfit” characters of the Athletics in contrast to Pitt and Hill’s characters. The film harped on the collection of misfits and nobodies that led the Oakland Athletics to 103 wins. The film, however, conveniently leaves out that Oakland had the American League MVP in Miguel Tejada and Cy Young Award winner in Barry Zito. Additionally, there is a lack of character depth other than in Pitt and Hill’s characters. Pitt and Hill’s performances are enough to carry the film (and both will merit Oscar consideration). By focusing so much attention on Pitt and Hill, however, the writers neglect to expand on the misfits that make up the Athletics. While the film still works despite neglecting these characters, there is a substantial amount of untapped potential.

The most notorious feature of the film is the villainization of Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Hoffman portrays Howe as an insubordinate who is more focused on gaining a contract extension than in helping the team win. Howe directly disobeys Beane’s orders although it would help the team win. Hoffman does not truthfully represent Howe at all. As a fan of baseball, I was puzzled at Hoffman’s fictitious portrayal of Howe. Though this is a movie, it claims to be based “on a true story” but fails to include the truth they claim to base it on. In fact, Hoffman’s portrayal of Howe was so egregious, Art Howe himself threatened a character defamation suit against Sorkin and the writers.

“Moneyball” is a fantastic movie for the casual and avid baseball fan. Don’t, however, go in expecting an accurate and truthful representation of the 2002 Oakland Athletics. The movie is a new take on the baseball comeback story but, in weaving this new tale, the movie delves into fiction rather than the reality on which it is based.

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