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Aaron at the movies: “Moneyball” review

Sep 13, 2011, 11:19 AM EDT

moneyball poster

Last night I attended an advance screening of the “Moneyball” movie, which is set for a wide release on September 23.

I’ve read Michael Lewis’ book twice and consider it some of the best, most important baseball writing of all time, but I was never quite sure how exactly it could be turned into a compelling narrative film. And I’m still not sure, but I do know that it was definitely an enjoyable two hours.

As a hardcore baseball fan who paid close attention to Billy Beane and the A’s during the period portrayed in the film there were a lot of specifics that stood out as questionable, particularly in terms of the movie’s time lines and exaggerated portrayals of certain characters (although the book is guilty of the latter as well).

However, what the movie lacked in historical accuracy it made up for in witty dialogue, likable characters, and a surprising amount of humor. I saw the movie in a packed theater and there were at least 8-10 moments where the entire audience laughed out loud, which certainly isn’t what I expected.

Brad Pitt is charming as A’s general manager Billy Beane and an effort was clearly made to portray him as far less cocky and far more vulnerable than he appeared in the book. There’s still an inherent cockiness to the character, but by making his 12-year-old daughter a substantial character and giving Pitt plenty of chances to contemplatively stare off into the distance while rubbing his stubble the main character is less brash general manager and more flawed human with a high-pressure job.

Jonah Hill is the movie’s second lead and plays the A’s assistant general manager, which is a position that Paul DePodesta actually held at the time of the Moneyball book. DePodesta reportedly refused to let the movie use his name and it’s easy to see why, as the “Peter Brand” character out-weighs him by about 150 pounds and is essentially the stereotypical stat-head, whereas DePodesta played both baseball and football at Harvard and had a completely different and less cliched backstory.

Which isn’t to say Hill’s fictional character isn’t likable, because he carried much of the movie and provided most of the comic relief as the chubby numbers guy thrust into a prominent job that’s way out of his element initially. Pitt and Hill work very well off each other and Parks and Recreation co-star Chris Pratt has some good moments as Scott Hatteberg, although the portrayal of the 14-year big-league veteran veered too close to Rudy Ruettiger territory at times.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays manager Art Howe and is given by far the most thankless role of the movie, essentially serving as the villain to Beane’s hero. Howe’s relationship with Beane was far from ideal and he left the A’s following back-to-back 100-win seasons, but it’s hard to imagine the actual Howe being as stubborn and difficult as Hoffman’s version. Beane’s character needed roadblocks and frequent conflict, and Howe did little beyond serving that role.

While creative license was taken with plenty of time lines and specifics, the film also does an excellent job of staying true to the most minute details. They mention dozens of actual players, mostly in situations that actually existed, and all of the recreations of games featured the players who were truly involved. When you see the A’s playing the Royals and Luis Ordaz is on second base, you know they combed through the boxscores in order to get every little thing correct.

Parts of the movie dragged on and there were predictable struggles to show rather than tell when the action was lacking, but director Bennett Miller was able to squeeze more drama out of the book than I anticipated. I came into the movie with low expectations and was bothered by some of the poetic license taken in telling a tale I’m very familiar with, but the underdog story is compelling, the individual performances are mostly very good, the Aaron Sorkin-penned dialogue is funny and charming, and “Moneyball” is absolutely worth seeing.

For a lot more “Moneyball” talk, check out the podcast I recorded immediately after seeing the movie.

  1. APBA Guy - Sep 13, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    I enjoy Michael Lewis’ writing, and I heartily recommend the “Big Short” to anyone who wants a deeper dive into the roots of our current financial malaise. But my issue with “Moneyball” has and continues to be that too little recognition is given to the role Sandy Alderson, Beane’s predecessor, played in the developing both the team and the philosophy of using statistical measures to assess value in player evaluation. Contrary to the impression given in the movie trailer, the concept of Moneyball did not come to Beane in a flash of zen-like clarity. Value analysis developed along a continuum of thought which is clearly evident in the Alderson years. Beane further developed it, and to some extent overvalued it to the exclusion of scouting, and is now paying the price for that over reliance.

    • 4d3fect - Sep 13, 2011 at 8:18 PM

      Holy ****! I finished The Big Short this summer and I’ve been naseous ever since! Hadn’t realized it was this guy.

  2. Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    I don’t get it. I know everyone loves a feel good story but besides some impressive regular season win totals the system doesn’t seem to work that well. The A’s suck! If they had won a WS I could see making a movie but they didn’t, so I just don’t get it.

    • jonweisman - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:16 PM

      Do you get why they made “The Bad News Bears” or “Rocky?” When did winning the World Series become the sole defining reason to make a movie?

      • skipperxc - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:23 PM

        In fact the World Series is *rarely* a part of baseball movies. It always bothered me how a ton of baseball movies don’t even bother with it. Angels in the Outfield, Rookie of the Year, even Major League: they all leave off after the league championships and just inform you after the fact that oh, the hard part’s over, that whole ACTUALLY WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP thing was no big deal.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:33 PM

        But Rocky won something! These guys didn’t win shit.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:34 PM

        I would rather watch the real Billy Beane be interviewed with highlights reels playing than a fictional movie about a guy that kind of made a team competitive.

      • aceshigh11 - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:40 PM

        Same thing with The Natural…I believe Roy Hobbs’ home run (*SPOILER*) won the Knights the pennant.

      • stealing3rd - Sep 13, 2011 at 2:02 PM

        Rocky actually lost the fight in Rocky……just saying.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 2:14 PM

        Rocky single handedly won the cold war. Don’t forget it.

      • clydeserra - Sep 13, 2011 at 2:16 PM

        Well, Flint “could care less” about the topic and he is proving it by commenting.

        Seriously though, the A’s won almost 1000 games from 2000-2010. they did pretty well.

      • florida76 - Sep 13, 2011 at 3:29 PM

        Movies like Rocky and TBNB are fictional stories, so that’s a different situation from a non fiction work. Bottom line, significant achievement is the gold standard for non fiction material, and beating nondescript franchises like the M’s, Angels, and Rangers just isn’t enough of a payoff for the viewer. Had that A’s team won a pennant, I could see a movie, but otherwise, Moneyball fails. With a budget of only $47 million, the expectations for this movie are very low, and this topic was better suited for an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary.

    • citifieldurinal - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:40 PM

      In a 5-game series with that small a sample size, most ‘systems’ don’t work.

      I’m pretty sure it was Beane himself who said, and I’m paraphrasing from the book, “My sh!t doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

      It can work, but it isn’t a guarantee. He built his model on what would have a statistical significance (a 162 game season) and let the playoffs be the probability crapshoot that they are.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 12:43 PM

        I get what he did, I just don’t get why people care. If I told you that we could win a bunch of games but we won’t have the pitching or heavy hitters for a championship than I’ll pass everytime. Other systems are proven to work, his is not.

      • citifieldurinal - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:18 PM

        First off, people care because teams usually don’t win 102 games with the 2nd-lowest payroll in baseball like they did in 2001. They made 4 straight playoff appearances despite not having a payroll higher than 23rd any of those years.

        Then to top it off, they used a system that was basically counter-intuitive to conventional baseball thinking? That’s a pretty compelling story if you ask me.

        “If I told you that we could win a bunch of games but we won’t have the pitching or heavy hitters for a championship than I’ll pass everytime.”

        The kicker is that the A’s DID have pitching and did have heavy hitting, they were just immensely unlucky from 2000-03 in the playoffs.

        AL rankings from 2000-03:
        Home runs: 2nd, 5th, 4th, 6th
        ERA: 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 1st

        Like I said, immensely unlucky.

      • CliffC - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:20 PM

        And what system is that? Free agency?

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:24 PM

        Citi, you may have just convinced me that the movie should have been made. You obviously are intrigued by this. I am not. I honestly thought that the demographic for this movie would be way too low to produce. Reason being is I love baseball and still could care less, but hopefully for their sake a lot of people do.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:39 PM

        Yes, Cliff, in today’s MLB the route to success is FA and having a strong farm system to trade for players who can help. Until baseball changes their financial structure or rules this will continue. In a few years “moneyball” will be a blip on the radar of the grand scheme of things. It did very little to change the overall landscape of baseball, it just changed how certain evaluators process information about certain players. People got excited because it was new but the teams that have continued success still operate in the same manner as they did before.

      • ThatGuy - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:44 PM

        Matthew Flint- Thats why the got big names to star in it. This movie with no names doesn’t do anything.

      • CliffC - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:56 PM

        But that’s the point. They can’t compete in free agency so they came up with an unconventional way of evalualating players that led to some success. More success than any team not named the Rays have had with such a low payroll.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:59 PM

        But not enough success to warrant the hype. And as it seems the success was not sustainable.

      • CliffC - Sep 13, 2011 at 2:06 PM

        Sure but all front offices think this way to an extent now. OBP is part of almost every offensive conversation now when that wasn’t the case 10+ years ago. Is that strictly because of Beane? Probably not, but he has certainly had a major influence on the dialogue within baseball.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 2:14 PM

        Agreed, I just don’t see how his influence on baseball warrants being portrayed in a movie is all. George Steinbrenner (I’m not a Yankees fan, actually closer to a hater) took a once prestigious team and brought it back to relevance. Then he turned it into a dynasty. And I still don’t think he deserves to be put on the big screen. I guess my opinion is sports movies are better and more interesting when they are complete fiction. The liberties taken when true stories with not enough drama in them are enough to turn me off.

    • rhandome - Sep 13, 2011 at 1:53 PM

      You sure made a lot of comments on a topic you “don’t care” about, Flint.

      • Matthew Flint - Sep 13, 2011 at 2:00 PM

        I actually just like to argue.

    • shutupyoufuckingidiots - Sep 13, 2011 at 7:24 PM

      you obviously didn’t read the book and even if you did, im sure the whole idea of it and why it’s fascinating are totally over your head. either that or you’re a troll.

  3. Old Gator - Sep 13, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    I go to documentaries expecting accuracy. I go to movies, per se, for stimulation, entertainment, to savor good writing and performances. Sounds like this film’s got those. I expect it’ll be a while before it gets to Macondo but I’m going to make a point of seeing it when it does. I need some last bit of chuckle therapy to get me over the two and a half hours of unremitting boredom that was The Tree of Life.

  4. kirkmack - Sep 14, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    Interesting read to compare to this review- Keith Law completely slaughters the movie-

  5. bloogart7 - Sep 14, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    Don’t tell Aaron Gleeman, but a movie with “witty dialogue, likable characters, and a surprising amount of humor” isn’t very exclusive. Even a movie where there are “at least 8-10 moments where the entire audience laughed out loud” isn’t THAT rare, as Moneyball became the 106th movie to do so and if Seth Rogen’s 50/50 opens decently in a few weeks it’ll probably become the 107th movie by the end of the season.

    So why bother reviewing it? Nobody makes a big deal of those other movies. So in terms of the attention being given to the actual movie, it might be just a bit overrated.


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