Sunday, September 25, 2011

“Moneyball” – Maybe statistics are fun.

There are a couple of things in movies that I like to harp on because I consider them bad. One is when they trash a perfectly good book, and another is when they mess up obvious things. An example of the first item is Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. It’s a great book – exciting, adventurous, with likeable characters – turned into a movie that, while entertaining to non-readers, was a slap in the face to the rest of us. An example of the second is a whole myriad of stuff; from electrocution not harming humans (Jumper) to making a sinking car float with the air already in its tires (Transporter 3). Moneyball is potentially susceptible to both of those problems, but since I’ve never read the book, I can only comment on the second part. Though, having seen and thoroughly enjoyed the film, I will be reading the book in the near future.

Even though I think this is arguably the best film of the year, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t point out some glaring holes in the film. So, please remember this as you read the next couple of paragraphs - I really, really like this movie. There are two ways to look at this film – as a baseball fan and a movie reviewer. From a strictly film-reviewer standpoint, this movie is great and I will get to why in a minute. From a baseball standpoint, the accuracy and blatant exclusion of certain things is very disappointing, though the reasons for some of them are obvious.

Moneyball is a book about baseball statistics and how they were used to change the way players were evaluated. In a more general term, “moneyball” is the concept of a less-rich team, like the Oakland A’s, competing with a more-rich team, like the Yankees, by earning just as many wins for a lot less money. This is achieved by looking deep into the statistics of undervalued players and piecing together players whose combined skills pay off in wins without paying them tens of millions of dollars. The book focuses on the 2002 Oakland Athletics and the general manager (GM), Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), and how Beane copes with the loss of three of his star players going into the 2002 season. While at a meeting with another GM, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a nerdy young man who has analyzed the crap out of baseball player statistics and thwarts Beane’s attempts to acquire a relief pitcher. After speaking with Brand, Beane hires him and the two of them embark on a mission to replace those lost players. So far, so good.

For movie reasons, the film only focuses on one statistic: on-base percentage (how often a guy gets on base), and makes a big show of Beane and Brand electing to sign players based on that statistic alone, much to the chagrin of their scouts and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who “know baseball.” This is where the story becomes disingenuous, as any person with knowledge of baseball and that season in particular will tell you. The first mistake they make with this is in the players that Beane wants to sign and which are focused on by the film – Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, Chad Bradford, and Jeremy Giambi. Of those four players, Bradford is the only pitcher, and pitchers don’t have on-base percentages because the A’s pitchers don’t bat. They say he is cheap and undervalued, yet don’t explain why because that would just confuse the audience. From a film standpoint, this is okay, as Bradford is used as a point of contention between Beane and Howe, but it doesn’t fit the film’s definition of Moneyball. The other huge mistake they make with these players, which has nothing to do with Moneyball and everything to do with lazy fact checking, is that Jeremy Giambi ALREADY played for the A’s. Even from a film standpoint, I don’t understand how this mistake got through.

Getting back to the Moneyball aspect, the biggest problem to us baseball fans is that we know who else played for that team; guys that can’t be included in the story because they would ruin the romance of Moneyball – three of the best starting pitchers and arguably the best shortstop at the time. And again, they were all part of the team before Beane had to “get creative.” They also leave out the fact that in 2002 that shortstop, Miguel Tejada, was the MVP of the league and one of those pitchers, Barry Zito, won the Cy Young Award. Regardless of on-base percentage and hard-luck players occasionally coming through, those four players were critical in the success of that team. But, like I said, these are baseball related mistakes and I only point them out so the audience doesn’t blindly believe this movie accurately portrayed that team.

Having said all that, I can forgive them because they made a very entertaining movie out of a book about statistics. When I heard about this film being produced I didn’t think there was any way they could pull it off, but that was before I watched it and saw that Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay. I’d love to be able to say he made statistics interesting, but this movie wasn’t really about statistics and it was barely about Moneyball. No, it was really about Beane struggling through an impossible situation with his trusty sidekick, making time for his delightful young daughter, his relationships with Brand, Howe, and the players, and a few peeks at the life a baseball GM. Pitt, Hill, and Hoffman, are all fantastic and interact with each other as if they’re not even acting. Pitt and Hill work especially well together, which is important considering the amount of screen time they have. They also manage to include a lot of actual footage from that season that adds authenticity.

Perhaps the best proof I have of how good this film was is in the way it was received by the audience. At one point during the season, the A’s going on a massive winning streak and the film spends a lot of time on game twenty of the streak. Knowing what was going to happen, I paid some attention to the audience and they were dead silent. The audience was literally on the edge of their seats, gasping at every error made by the A’s, silently praying for the A’s to pull through. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought they were watching a live game instead of one decided nearly ten years ago. Even better, when the film was over, one man commented that he didn’t even like baseball, but the movie made him want to start watching baseball. If that’s not glowing enough a review for you, then you are hopeless.

Rating: This movie is worth the price of admission…to a World Series game.

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