By Brian Skutle
Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” has all the pedigree of an Oscar contender- an acclaimed director, two Oscar-winning screenwriters adapting a best-seller, one of the industry’s most respected cinematographers, and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It’s a prestigious biopic in every sense of the phrase. It’s also the best example in a long time of how philosophical the underdog sports formula can be in the right hands. A decade after its release, that’s what continues to resonate, even if audiences don’t really think about it at first. I know I didn’t look at “Moneyball” quite like that at first; now, I cannot see it any other way.
It’s not easy to make an underdog sports movie where the underdog loses in the end. Doesn’t that undermine our interest in rooting for them? It depends on what we’re rooting for the character to accomplish. At the end of “Rocky,” the win isn’t that he defeats Apollo Creed, but that a blue-collar fighter could get in the ring with a champion and go the distance with him. At the end of “Tin Cup,” Roy McAvoy doesn’t win the US Open, but he’s proven he can make an impossible shot and created an unforgettable memory; in the end, that’ll be enough for him. For Billy Beane, losing in 5 in the ALDS for the second year in a row, after a tumultuous change in perspective on the game he’s made his life, stings, but by sticking to his convictions, he’s opened the door for others, and given himself a better chance to win the last game of the season in the future by what he’s learned along the way. Their victories are spiritual ones; by the end, they have learned to trust their abilities more than they did at the start- that’s more valuable than any win they accomplish in their sport.
The most memorable underdogs have someone to push them towards their great accomplishment. Rocky has Mickey. Daniel LaRusso has Mr. Miyagi. “Nuke” LaLoosh in “Bull Durham” has “Crash” Davis. Rudy Ruettiger has Fortune and the assistant coaches at Notre Dame. Billy Beane has Peter Brand. Brand is a composite of several assistants Beane had but primarily inspired by Paul DePodesta. The latter helped introduce sabermetrics and analytics to Major League Baseball while it espoused the old way of evaluating talent in players. For the past five years, DePodesta has been the de facto president of the Cleveland Browns, where he has championed a similar approach to the one he brought to the MLB. As they went 1-31 in the first two years of DePodesta’s tenure, there were several times when patience in the process as lean as a fan; the anxiety we see in Billy’s face, and feel in his actions, as the team struggles out of the gates, as the old school approach of manager Art Howe collides with Brand’s/DePodesta’s ideas of how the roster-building should work, is palpable. The Browns, by the way, ended last season in the playoffs for the first time in almost 20 years and won their first playoff game since 1995. When Scott Hatteberg hits that home run to secure the American League’s longest-ever winning streak in “Moneyball,” the emotion Beane shows when he’s alone in the weight room is not unlike my feelings when Baker Mayfield’s run secured the Browns the playoffs this past year- in both cases, faith in the process was rewarded.
I respected “Moneyball” when I first watched it more than I liked it. I didn’t consider revisiting it until an interview with Brad Pitt on “The Daily Show” during its Oscar campaign, where he talked about how one of the things he took away from the experience of playing Billy Beane was how the film explored how we value people. That is something I really began to gravitate towards in films at the time, and rewatching “Moneyball” with that perspective helped me appreciate the movie more than I did initially. Throughout the film, we see flashbacks of Billy’s playing career as major league scouts recruit him. They tell him the right things to get him to choose professional baseball over college, only to see him struggle in the majors. The flashbacks are timed to moments of big decision as Billy, now the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics is struggling to rebuild his team with a limited payroll that undermines his ability to compete with teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. In the first of those moments, he is in the office of the Cleveland Indians GM trying to work out a deal, and after Peter (played by Jonah Hill) intervenes, resulting in the deal being nixed, Billy is curious about this person who looks different than anyone else in the room, yet has such sway that a seemingly “go” trade is off the table afterward. After Billy has had a frank discussion with Peter, he is unsure what to make of it, but he’s nonetheless hooked. Next thing we know, Peter is in Oakland, creating player profiles on 47 prospects for the team after Billy told him to do three. Sorry, 51 players; Peter doesn’t know why he lied just then, in a moment indicative of the relationship to come between the two characters.
In lesser hands, “Moneyball” could have very easily have been “Major League.” Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) being transformed into a first baseman after a lifetime as a catcher has all the makings of a reinvention like Willie Mays Hayes. Chad Bradford’s unusual pitching style could have resulted in the comedic beats of Ricky Vaughn turning into a real pitcher. And David Justice and his diminishing physical skills, while also being a mentor, could have had a lot in common with Jake Taylor. Turning this into a comedy would have been disrespectful to those real-life players and missed the point entirely of the film Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian, and Aaron Sorkin made. Sure, they are- in Brand’s words- a team like an “island of misfit toys,” but more than that, they are players who had dreams of being great, who still feel like they can be great. Hatteberg’s playing first base isn’t a comedic ploy, but a way for him to have a second chance after his body failed him; it takes a leap of faith for Billy even to suggest the possibility to him and for Scott to accept it. And I’ve always loved the scene between Billy and David Justice- Justice still has the swagger of the superstar he was with those early 1990s Atlanta Braves teams. Still, when Billy deflates some of that ego with the simple truth of his contract and how he’s getting paid, Justice sees that Billy wants him around less for name recognition and more for his potential as someone who can not only be a leader in the clubhouse but someone who, just maybe, might be able to come through in the clutch when they need it the most, just enough to get them both to the big dance. Miller and co. respect the mental aspect of the game as much as the physical one; after all, the way people think about the game is the central idea behind “Moneyball” in the first place.
Art Howe, played by the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is set up as one of the antagonists against Billy and Peter’s philosophy, along with Grady, the head scout for the A’s. Art Howe isn’t a complex character in the film, and he isn’t treated as a “villain”- he’s just out of step with the thinking of our protagonists. They both want the same thing- they just don’t view how to get there the same way. We understand why Howe would choose an actual first baseman like Carlos Pena over one Billy’s trying to invent in Hatteberg, or why a pitcher vs. batter philosophy of righty vs. lefty would win out over playing someone with a peculiar pitching delivery. There are plenty of other things Miller does in the film to illustrate Billy’s battle against the old school way of thinking; the reason the film’s scenes between Howe and Billy are important to the narrative is that it brings that battle to a personal level none of the other things- namely, sports talk commentary- can accomplish. The accomplishment of the winning streak then becomes a shared one, even if the film slants it in Billy’s favor, while everyone on the outside will credit Howe.
The business of sports, if done realistically, should not be this entertaining to watch. This is where Pitt and Hill, as our main characters, are essential. One of the truths about Pitt that comes out in his best work is that he’s an oddball character actor in the body of a classic movie star. Pitt constantly eating in every scene is not something you see stars leaning on in a performance, but it feels entirely suitable for Billy Beane. The former ballplayer chewing on popcorn or sunflower seeds or gum feels completely normal and authentic, and sometimes, it results in a great little moment like when someone calls him back mid-chew, and he has to spit out the food to take the call. As Brand, Hill arguably has the more challenging transformation- best known as a comedic actor. He has to find sincerity in a brainy nerd, and he accomplishes that from his first moments. In a way, he’s the straight man for Pitt to bounce off of, and never is that more apparent than when Billy is trying to trade for a reliever he initially wanted in that first meeting where he met Brand. Billy is trying to juggle all the plates in the air while Peter has to ground him, whether it’s making the call from the owner himself or trying to find a player to trade for; the way Miller and the actors build that scene, it’s probably the most cheer-worthy scene in the film when they succeed. Earlier in the movie, another trade scene between the two takes place with a different energy, as Billy’s frustration with how things are going could be leading to some potentially grave mistakes. As that scene progresses, Brand is actually on the opposite side of the equation as Billy, trying to convince him of being reasonable and not making decisions that others will not understand. Billy’s response shows how much he’s not only learned from Peter but how much trust he has in Brand’s ideas. He’s done with the old way of valuing people- if trading a traditional star, or a name player that might be a locker room cancer, is what it takes to see results, that’s what he’ll do, and he shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone.
“Moneyball’s” climax is a distillation of what makes the film great. The movie began with Billy alone, in Oakland Colosseum, sitting in the stands listening to the team lose in the playoffs. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s lighting and shot composition are beautiful, as we Billy at a distance, alone with his radio. After the loss, he goes out to his truck, and before he moves anywhere, he throws the radio out the window; in a quiet rage, he goes out and stomps on it- the start of an arduous process to come. In the end, he’s been given the biggest offer ever for a GM to go to the Red Sox. He’s sitting in the locker room alone before Brand comes in. By this point, Brand has begun to be able to speak Billy’s language about baseball to him, and his words make for an interesting symmetry with the beginning of the film- Billy has a choice to try and chase the money or follow the road less traveled. He ends up back in the stadium, this time on the field, and Pfister’s camera sees him, once again, at a distance, this time alone with his thoughts. The movie’s last scene is him in his truck, at peace with where his journey has taken him, as he listens to his daughter’s CD. Seeing images of factories and shipping containers, familiar sights for us throughout the film representing the blue-collar nature of Oakland, we can infer- before the title cards at the end tells us specifically- that it’s just another day of going into the office for Billy. His journey was about his accomplishments out of the spotlight, not becoming just another big name who thinks money is the most important bellwether of a man’s worth.
The underdog sports movie is my kryptonite as a movie watcher. Even a movie as predictable and silly as “The Replacements,” “RAD,” or “Facing the Giants” will connect with me if you get just enough of the formula right. I do genuinely enjoy “Major League,” and while it’s obvious Ivan Reitman’s “Draft Day” is trying to mine the same territory as “Moneyball” in its own way, I’d be lying if Sonny Weaver’s accomplishments on the most important day of a GM’s calendar don’t get me excited. “The Karate Kid,” “Rocky Balboa,” and “Speed Racer” all have tremendous value to me, not just as entertainment, but in how they approach the journey their main characters go on. “Moneyball” combines all of the familiar elements of the genre- the excitement of the on-field win, the passion for chasing one’s dream for greatness, the doubts that settle in when it feels like the task is too overwhelming, heck even the training montage (here with Billy and Peter explaining the method behind their thinking to the team)- into a winning package, without sacrificing what makes it a unique perspective on the formula.
Have you seen “Moneyball?” Are you a fan? Do you think it deserved to win Best Picture in 2011? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Brian and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @skutlelemur