Monday, September 26, 2011

Moneyball Movie Review

By
Image courtesy of Movies.About.com
"The first one through the wall always gets bloody" - this idiom uttered by Boston Red Sox Owner John Henry perfectly encapsulates what this movie is all about. Being a trailblazer sometimes comes at the expense of criticism.

The film Moneyball was adapted from the critically acclaimed book by the same name, written by Michael Lewis. In the movie, Brad Pitt plays the central character - Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane.

Initially, I thought that the enemy was the New York Yankees; the organization where money is never an issue. Or, as Billy Beane referred to the Yankees in the film, the Yankees just "used other teams as their farm system".

While the Yankees embody the shortcut to success, they are not the enemy in Moneyball. The main antagonist in this film is conventionalism: in the form of A's manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), head of scouting Grady Fusion (Ken Medlock), and the general baseball community.

The entire film is about Billy Beane fighting conventionalism in many forms, all the while battling demons from his past as a former highly touted five-tool prospect. Being only one of a few former players turned General Manager at the time, Beane saw baseball much differently than other executives.

Right from the start, Beane has the uphill battle of trying to rebuild a team who lost three integral pieces of their roster and has to turn to unconventional methods to fill those gaps. That's why Billy Beane recruits an economics major from Yale, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to right the ship once again.

A large part of the success lies in part due to Peter Brand, and the scenes that Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill's characters share are very entertaining. The clashing styles of their characters work in a very strange way, much like I'm sure they did in Oakland's front office.

Having read and reviewed the Moneyball book over three years ago, I had a tough time recalling which elements of the book were prevalent in the film. The only noticeably absent thing from the movie that was prevalent in the book was Beane's drafting strategy. However, Beane's tendency to avoid selecting high-schoolers is not something I would re-write into the film.

In fact, considering that this film was adapted from a non-fiction book, I'd say they did a fantastic job of crafting it into a modern-day baseball movie. Kudos to the screenwriters for finding a way to convert a book predominantly about statistics into a compelling movie.

In one of the early scenes of the film, Billy Beane is at a table surrounded by the Oakland A's scouts as they attempt to figure out how to replace the power of a departing Jason Giambi with talent within their farm system. 

The dialogue used by the scouts to describe the prospects is a plethora of tired, old cliched phrases that in no way actually quantify a player's worth. If that was an accurate portrayal of how baseball scouts still operate, then it's no wonder Billy Beane turned to the Moneyball philosophy.

Watching Peter Brand help turn the Oakland A's team into an on-base machine made me wonder if the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees do the exact same thing in their respective war rooms. Both teams are notorious of grinding games to a halt, but both the Red Sox and the New York Yankees teams take lots of pitches.

It seems to be no coincidence that these teams that control the pace of the games see the most success. They let the game come to them and capitalize on their opposition's mistakes. If that isn't a strategy that's already being employed by other teams, then maybe it should be.

Billy Beane's pet project in the film (and the book for that matter), was failed catching prospect Scott Hatteberg. After they pick him up as a reclamation prospect from the Boston Red Sox, Hatteberg blossoms in his new role as a first baseman.

Witnessing Hatteberg's character and player development in the film, the very first thing I thought of related to the Blue Jays was none other than Edwin Encarnacion. The two players arguably have a similar career arc; notoriously bad fielders/throwers at one position that found new life at another.

That's where I feel the Moneyball influence is very prevalent within the Toronto Blue Jays front office. It seems like there are shades of Billy Beane in Alex Anthopoulos, as AA tries to reincarnate Edwin Encarnacion as an effective player just as Beane did with Scott Hatteberg.

Overall, the Moneyball movie isn't really a rags to riches story of a team that went from worst to first. It's about a team that went to the playoffs, and then went to the playoffs again the following year. But the second time around, they did it without integral pieces of their 2001 run.

The 2002 Oakland A's aren't presented like the conventional underdogs similar to the Cleveland Indians in Major League. Yet, you still find yourself cheering for the Oakland A's as Billy Beane and Peter Brand use Sabermetrics to fight conventionalism.

We all know how the Oakland A's 2002 season ended; by a 3-2 series loss in the ALDS by the Minnesota Twins. The team assembled by Billy Beane managed to win 103 games during the regular season, but they couldn't win the last game of the season.

The 20-game win streak was by far my favourite part of the movie. It's no secret what happened during that run, but even in the movie, I got goose bumps when Scott Hatteberg hit the walk-off home run to win the 20th game.

The only criticism I have of Moneyball is that at two hours and six minutes, the movie may be a little on the long side. Although, it doesn't feel like a two hour flick because the pacing in Moneyball is pretty consistent.

I wouldn't even say one has to read the Moneyball book to develop an appreciation for the movie, as the film stands on its own as a great piece of work, let alone perhaps one of the best baseball movies out there.

It's no Bull Durham, it's no Major League, but Moneyball is a solid flick. Baseball fans will really enjoy it, and even if you don't like baseball, the performances by Pitt, Hill and the rest of the cast make it all worthwhile.

In Moneyball, Pitt's character Billy Beane says "it's hard not to be romantic about baseball". And after watching this movie, you'll find it difficult not to fall in love with the game all over again.

5 comments:

  1. I went to see Moneyball this weekend as well. It definitely was an enjoyable movie, and even my wife who went with me enjoyed it.

    As a side note to show how much she knows about baseball, when Hatteburg hit a pinch hit home run to extend the winning streak to 20 games, my wife was confused as to how a player that on the bench could replace someone in the line-up. When I told her that he was used as a pinch hitter, this only confused her more and she responded with "What is a pinch hitter?"

    Getting back to the movie, I really enjoyed it, but found it very different from the book. Also, there were many things in the movie that never happened in real life. For example:
    - Grady Fuson was never fired from the A's, he left to become the General Manager in waiting for Texas and when that never happened he went to San Diego, and is actually now back with the A's.
    - Paul Depodesta was not hired after the 2001 season. The A's hired him in 1999 and most of the money ball principles were well in place prior to when the movie portrays them to be.
    - I don't think the Carlos Pena deal went down how they portrayed it. In real life he was traded as part of a 3 team deal with Yankees and Tigers and resulted in Ted Lilly, Jason Arnold and John-Ford Griffin going to the A's, Bonderman, German and Pena going to the Tigers and Jeff Weaver going to the Yankees. That's a pretty complicated deal to be pulled off that quickly, and I think the Pitt character said they got a bunch of relievers for Pena including Jeff Tam???
    - etc.

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  2. Peter, glad to hear you enjoyed it. Going in, I thought I was going to have to re-read to the book to have a sense of what was going to transpire, but turns out you didn't even need to read to understand the film.

    Good catches on the difference between the book and film. I vaguely recall the Carlos Pena thing being a lot more complicated than it was presented in the film. But overall, I think they did a great job in writing the screenplay and making it into a workable movie.

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  3. Ian (or anyone for that matter), do you remember the name and the team of that rather large catcher who fell down rounding first base near the end of the movie? (trying to avoid spoilers here)

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  4. Minor Leaguer, that was Jeremy Brown the Catcher the A's selected in the supplemental 1st round of the 2002 draft.

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  5. MinorLeaguer and Peter, that's correct - I can't remember if he was actually referred to as "Jeremy Brown" in the movie, but that certainly seems to be who that character was based off of.

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