by Mel Valentin
Michael Lewis’ ("The Big Short," "The Blindside," "Liar’s Poker") non-fiction book, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" took a long, torturous path from the bestseller lists to the big screen. Originally published in 2003, "Moneyball" became an instant bestseller, but it took seven years before the fictionalized big-screen adaptation could begin principal photography, let alone reach movie theaters for the inevitable Oscar push de rigueur for “prestige” productions in the fall. Studio executives halted production only a few days before principal photography was set to start. Out went writer-director Steven Soderbergh (and his screenplay) and in came the lesser-known Bennett Miller ("Capote") to direct Steve Zaillian ("Schindler’s List") and Aaron Sorkin’s ("The Social Network," "The West Wing") screenplay.Moneyball centers on Billy Beane (an unsurprisingly charismatic Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, an American League team that last won a World Series in 1989 against their Bay Area rivals, the San Francisco Giants (the Giants won the World Series last year). Moneyball focuses on roughly a one-year span in Beane’s tenure as A’s GM from late 2001 through late 2002. The A’s, a successful, small-market team, push the hated New York Yankees to the brink of elimination in a five-game divisional series, but the Yankees came back to win the series 3-2. In the offseason, three of the A’s best (and best known) players, Johnny Damon, an outfielder and leadoff hitter, Jason Giambi, a first baseman and the 2000 AL MPV, and Jason Isringhausen, the A’s closer, for big-money contracts in big-market cities (Damon to the Red Sox, Giambi to the Yankees, Isringhausen to the St. Louis Cardinals).
"A modest, modestly engrossing character study."
Faced with the daunting task of replacing the production of three key players on a small-market budget, a desperate Beane (desperate according to Bennett’s fictionalized version, of course) turns to so-called sabermetrics, baseball-centered statistics originally developed by Bill James. A true outsider, James’ ideas were treated as anathema by baseball executives. James’ looked at numbers, at metrics, at results in ways baseball executives, trained in a century-old tradition that favored gut instincts over critical analysis, repeatedly rejected. A one-time, “can’t miss” phenom who failed to make a Major League impact (shown in multiple flashbacks meant to reveal Beane’s obsession with baseball and winning), Beane saw potential in James’ ideas to revolutionize the business side of baseball. Moneyball makes Beane, like, presumably, most moviegoers, unaware of James’ ideas until he encounters Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, surprisingly restrained and subdued), a pudgy, non-athletic Harvard grad and Cleveland Indians’ employee, quietly whispering advice to a baseball executive during a business meeting. Beane leaves empty-handed, player wise, but returns with Brand (loosely based on Paul DePodesta) as his new assistant (later assistant GM).
Zaillian and Sorkin’s screenplay closely follows Beane as he attempts to overturn a decades-old paradigm. Beane immediately encounters resistance from his talent scouts, specifically his chief talent scout, Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock). With decades of experience behind them (and few years ahead), they’re too fixated on tradition and convention to even consider flaws in their baseball player-picking methodology. They also refuse to defer to Beane, ostensibly due to Beane’s relative inexperience, but with Brand’s analysis of undervalued players as support, a limited payroll, and three huge holes in his lineup to fill, Beane overrides each and every objection. He also has to convince the A’s field manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an underwritten role) to accept Beane’s decidedly unorthodox approach to building a competitive team.
His clinical, methodical approach leads him to avoid developing personal relationships with his players (he refuses to travel with them on road trips). A divorced, single father, Beane sees his daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey), on the occasional long weekend. Sorkin and Zaillian present Casey as Beane’s only significant relationship outside of baseball. Beane’s onscreen isolation may make him a more romantic, more sympathetic figure, an element arguably crucial to drama, but it runs contrary to what a simple Google search will reveal about the real Beane (he remarried and fathered twins). While presumably done on purpose, the depiction of Beane as an obsessive loner raises potentially significant doubts, specifically whether the qualitative and/or quantitative analysis championed by Beane and Brand was truly revolutionary or, more accurately, evolutionary.While Sorkin and Zaillian’s screenplay focuses on Beane’s efforts to replace Giambi, Damon, and Isringhausen with undervalued players, it sidesteps a simple fact about that A’s team: It had great, young pitching. The “Big Three,” Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito (Zito won the 2002 Cy Young Award), were among baseball’s best pitching rotation. All three came up through the A’s farm system. Another key player and 2002 AL MVP, Miguel Tejada, was already with the A’s before they lost Giambi, Damon, and Isringhausen. Arguably, Sorkin and Zaillian had to decide who to focus on and who to leave out, but this particular version of "Moneyball" fails to give moviegoers an accurate depiction of both “Moneyball” and Beane’s contributions to the business and game of baseball, preferring a simplistic fiction to the more complex reality.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21746&reviewer=402
originally posted: 09/23/11 04:10:36