I have always loved baseball. It’s a graceful, peaceful beautiful sport; at least it was until money took over the game and players started moving from club to club as if they were nothing but trading cards. When I was young, you could pretty well count on your favourite team having mostly the same players year after year, with the rookies making the big difference. Not anymore. I’m surprised clubs maintain any loyalty. And then of course there’s the money, with clubs like the New York Yankees buying the best players because they have the most money and as a result they have won the World Series much more often than any other team.
In Moneyball, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s in 2001, when they lost in the playoffs after a great season. In 2002, Billy finds his star players have been bought by richer clubs and needs to find a way to put a new team together with less than a third of the budget that the Yankees have. He stumbles across an Economics graduate from Yale (Peter Brand, played very well by Jonah Hill) who thinks cost-effective player-buying is all about using computers to calculate things like “on base percentage”, and Billy decides to give it a shot.
I won’t tell you what happens, though I will say that if the film was about what happens to the A’s in 2002, I would not be inclined to give it the four stars is so clearly deserves. Indeed, a four-star film usually needs to be close to perfect, but Moneyball actually disappointed me in a number of ways: 1) It didn’t do a great job of conveying the year the A’s had in 2002. With a record of 20-26 early in the year, the sports analysts were making it sound like they hadn’t won more than a few games. What happened after, in terms of wins and losses, was never clear. In a sport that’s all about statistics, this is a serious oversight. 2) Moneyball obviously alludes to the role of money in baseball, but doesn’t provide any serious critique or offer any kind of solution. What Beane did in 2002 didn’t alter the way players are passed around like trading cards or address the many ways the game of baseball has been brought down by money and free agency during the past thirty years. Too bad. 3) It was never clear how well the players were doing (see 1). 4) I don’t like the Oakland A’s (though I don’t hate them, like I hate the Yankees).
Because of these and related disappointments, there is no way Moneyball gets more than three stars from me if I thought it was about the A’s and their 2002 season. But I didn’t. I thought it was about Beane and his relationships with his daughter, with Brand, with his colleagues and with his players. The story of Beane is so brilliantly told that I was fully engaged in the film every moment from start to finish. Part of this was the exceptionally intelligent dialogue (no surprise to learn that Aaron Sorkin was one of the writers). Part of this was the wonderful understated performance by Pitt, who deserves an oscar nomination, and the performances of his associates (who include Philip Seymour Hoffman as the A’s’ manager). Part of this was certainly the sure direction of Bennet Miller.
Moneyball is moving, it’s funny and it feels like a classic. It’s certainly a classy piece of entertainment which, like I said, deserves no less than ****. My mug is up for this top-ten contender.