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‘Moneyball’ cleverly delves into the game within the game

Pitt, Hill shine in rare thinking man's sports movie

POSTED: September 22, 2011 12:30 a.m.
Melinda Sue Gordon/AP Photo/Columbia Pictures-Sony

Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill are shown in a scene from "Moneyball."

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"Moneyball" is a thinking man's sports movie, although it's less about the sport than about "the game," the culture and business that drive professional baseball.

The movie is based on the Oakland Athletics' 2002 season — more accurately, it's based on Michael Lewis' book, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game."

We follow A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he tries to field a winning team with a payroll dwarfed by baseball's elite organizations. We see much more conversation about the sport than action on the field.

Beane faces the same struggles as every other small-market Major League Baseball team, but the writers, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (who are a kind of screenwriting dream team themselves), effectively interweave Beane's failures as a player to personalize the story.

Right away this is a unique movie. It's set a mere nine years ago. Beane and the people on whom most of the characters are based are still in the game, and baseball fans know how all this ends.

But those baseball fans also know that what Beane and company did is considered revolutionary.

Beane somehow managed to field a rather spectacular team during the 2001 season, a David that almost beat the Goliath Yankees in the American League Division Series. After that series, though, the A's lost their three star players to teams with bigger payrolls.

The movie begins with that set up then dramatizes how Beane rebuilt the team into playoff contenders the following season. He realizes the ways that teams determine the value of players is outdated and kills small-market teams.

Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate better suited to Wall Street than the dugout, who develops a completely different way of valuing players. Rather than trying to field an entire team of well-rounded stars, Brand uses computer algorithms to determine how many bases each player is going to reach over the course of the season, which produces a certain number of runs, which translates into wins.

Brand (a fictional substitute for the real Paul DePodesta) essentially does what fantasy baseball managers do. In Brand's system, defense barely matters, and a walk is as good as a base hit. At one point, Brand hilariously praises a prospect as "the Greek god of walks."

Beane makes Brand his assistant general manager, and they assemble a team full of players that Brand calls "undervalued," but whom the rest of the baseball world - including A's Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beane's scouts and the entire A's fan base - call has-beens and never-wases.

The results on the field may not reach Beane's grand aspirations, but they are spectacular nonetheless and do have a lasting effect on the game.

"Moneyball" is written and acted as well as any sports movie we've ever seen, and it mostly jettisons sports movie clichés - although it is terribly guilty of overusing slow motion.

Pitt, Hill, and Hoffman are virtually perfect, especially Hill. This is far and away the strongest role of his career.

The movie also focuses on Beane's relationship with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), who at one point plays her dad a song that she wrote. It is revealing and touching without becoming saccharin. Grown men will weep during that scene, I guarantee you.

Reality is the film's biggest problem. Beane's strategy did change the game to a degree, which gives this story about baseball management a sense of gravity.

However, since the 2002 season, Beane's "moneyball" has produced mixed results. The A's have yet to reach the World Series. They were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series, and that was the last year the A's had a winning season.

Beane might have changed "the game," but his own team has never reached the same heights again.

Ultimately, though, this is a movie about Beane proving his own value to himself, and deciding what is most important in life. On that level, "Moneyball" is a champion.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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