Moneyball is the Die Hard 2 of Baseball Movies

Moneyball – 2011

Directed by Bennett Miller
Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Casey Bond, Kerris Dorsey
Written by  Aaron Sorkin

There is a point early on in Moneyball, where Billy Beane, as played by Brad Pitt, is listening disgustedly to the assortment of old men who are supposed to be scouts for a major league baseball team.  He has just talked to A’s owner Stephen Schott, asking, and not succeeding in getting more money in the budget to counter the loss of 3 established stars to Free Agency.  The scouts are talking about things like girlfriends of the players, how players compare to the build of Mickey Mantle, and how much a player would hit if you give them 400 at bats.    He asks them a series of questions meant to make them look like petulant Jr. High kids, and then he breaks into the following:

The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game. And now we’ve been gutted. We’re like organ donors for the rich. Boston’s taken our kidneys, Yankees have taken our heart. And you guys just sit around talking the same old “good body” nonsense like we’re selling jeans. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We’ve got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.” 

This is meant to be a sort of exposition of the situation facing Billy Beane at the end of the 2002 season.  It is intended to get across the point that he is facing insurmountable odds externally, and, apparently, internally.  It is the tip of the iceberg for the viewer, and it is where the film starts to go wrong for me.  People who know baseball have had issues with the portrayal of just about everyone around Beane in the movie.  People who supposedly know movies have no problems with this at all, calling it dramatic license.  I have issues with it on both fronts.

The scout that Beane schools most publicly in the film is Grady Fuson.  If one believes what they see, Fuson was fired early in the 2002 season for  reasons of his refusal to accept Beane’s Bill Harris-inspired version of baseball.  The real Grady Fuson was hired away from the A’s to Texas in 2001 after amassing some talent in the minor leagues which included Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.  These names helped the A’s win 102 games in 2001.  Take away Giambi and they won 103 games in 2002.  So old-fashioned was Grady that they rehired him in 2010.  His baseball views were 9 years older by then.  Moneyball fails to mention any of this.

If we believe the Brad Pitt / Aaron Sorkin / Bennett Miller version of things, they took down three big posters of players on the stadium at the end of 2001: Johnny Damon, Jason Isringhausen and Giambi.  They replaced those banners not with the MVP of 2002 (Tejada), the guy who won the Cy Young award that year (Zito), or either of his other perennial All-Star starting teammates (Mulder and Hudson).  Instead they pretend the only star they have is an over the hill David Justice and haul his lonely figure up there.  Things look bleak indeed.  By design, of course.

For these offenses you could almost forgive.  No one who follows baseball, or movies benefits from knowing that the A’s were in the hunt from the start.  They have to come from behind for us to care.  The film’s most egregious error is their presentation of almost everybody, aside from Beane, and Peter Brand (aka Paul DePodesta) as a cast of idiots and ignoramuses.

Having to battle through leagues of ignorance can serve as a source of drama, but it’s cheaply gained.  Many of the shots of Beane’s seeming exasperation come across as trite as a result.  People like Art Howe, who, as portrayed by Hoffman, come across as not much more than a prideful buffoon who tried to negotiate contracts in the hallway and had to force Beane’s hand in getting rid of players to get him to change the lineup card.  Howe, generally known as a congenial man in baseball circles, gets  to be churlish, bullheaded and insecure.  What an upgrade.

Then there are the players.  Just about midway through the film, we get to see Beane and Brand (DePodesta) go around the clubhouse and lecture these open-minded young major leaguers on the benefits of taking walks.  The hallmark of the team for several years earlier had been that they had done just that.  The one person who doesn’t accept this wisdom is the old vet, Justice, who is dressed down by Beane, reminded that ‘the Yankees are paying him to NOT be on their team, and now, you know, go out and be a leader.’  Inspirational stuff.

What this does, besides make Pitt look as if he’s suffering from an ulcer, is take away from the strength of his character.  If Beane’s story is worth telling (and I think it is), then why not present it in a more realistic fashion.  Bill James’ theories of baseball are riveting drama, and there is a divide between those who buy it and those who don’t.  To make one side standoffish and idiotic makes both sides seem weaker.

The perfect movie equivalent to this one is Die Hard 2.  Throughout the film, McClane has to fight bad guys in front, and idiot cops on the other.  The movie is easily the worst of the series.  I wonder how many of people who hated that film like this one.

This is not to say that Moneyball offers nothing to enjoy.  The dialogue between Brand and Beane is fresh and entertaining.  His relationship with his daughter, Casey, is touchingly drawn and has some sparks of ingenuity, especially her version of the song, “The Show,” which has some relevant lyrics in her role as a child of divorced parents.

Jonah Hill’s performance of the Paul DePodesta character, Peter Brand, as written, was enough for DePodesta to have his name removed from the movie.   Hill did a pretty good variation on his typical character, though.  The film may have rated higher if more of it had been presented from his perspective.

As Casey Beane, Kerris Dorsey gives a fresh-faced perspective and an excellent counterpart for Pitt’s Beane.  She is cute, but not in the classic sense of both Pitt and Wright.  He is forced to be real with her, and while secretive, he is not condescending as he seems with the other characters.

Pitt, for his part, is entertaining, even if the script does him no favors.  Lots of working out, lots of stuffing his face with popcorn, Twinkies (two bites!) and the like and lots of breaking inanimate objects aside, he shows the depth of the Beane imagined by Sorkin.  Don’t fool yourself, though.  He did not deserve a best actor nomination for this.  He deserved one for Tree of Life.

It is the curse of all true baseball fans that a movie made by those who really do not understand their unique re-imagining of baseball, much less the game as it seems, would become the most popular baseball movie (with critics, if not fans) since Field of Dreams.  “As though chidden of God,” we are mocked once again.

(*** out of *****)

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