Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sports Watch: Moneyball (2011)

Watched:  02/27/2024
Format:  Netflix
Viewing:  First
Director:  Bennett Miller
Selection:  Jamie, but I was happy to do so

We're getting geared up for baseball season, so I'd expect we'll watch another baseball movie or two til the end of Spring Training and then switch over to regular Cubs-viewing.  

I hadn't seen Moneyball (2011) when it came out basically because I was busy watching other stuff.  I thought the premise - based on real-life events - seemed great.  And the aftermath of the events has wildly informed how baseball now works for MLB teams, analysts, fantasy players and even casual fans like myself trying to better understand the game (and occasionally checking on a hunch).

The basic plot of the movie is based on the 2002 season for the Oakland A's - and I can tell you now, I have zero memory of any of this happening as I didn't follow baseball at the time.  Following a great 2001 season that ends in a loss at the ALDS, the A's lose their best players and have no budget.  GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) sits with his scouts/ brain-trust to think about who to bring in, and he knows it will be a disaster.  Coming across a bright young man with a degree in economics and a head for SABRstatistics, Beane and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) return to the recruiting session and put a roster down of players who are cheap, but - statistically - should be able to take the team far farther than best guesses and the weird mumbo jumbo that informs sports-think.

The team doesn't perform, and then it does.  (This is all on Wikipedia and common knowledge to A's fans, I'd guess).  

Meanwhile, Billy navigates his past and present, informing him how he should proceed.  And somehow they landed Robin Wright for what's usually a walk-on part of the ex-wife.*  


I'm not 150% sure this movie needed to be the 2.25 hours it runs, but it is relatively engaging throughout.  And should basically work for non-baseball fans.  I didn't remember the A's winning the World Series in this millennium, so I was curious what the ending was, and it seems to have been the vindication of Beane's methods, and how, by accident, it also gives people a chance if you just look at them right.

Director Bennett Miller cut his teeth on documentaries and the feel of the film seems to catch some of that.  Sometimes chatter between two people, even when there's a lot going on, can feel stilted and uncertain.  And it's so... buyable in some scenes, I kept wondering if some of the people acting opposite Pitt were the real-life participants.  It's not bad acting at all - kind of the opposite.  It just feels less melodramatic and more matter-of-fact when everything isn't subtext.  And there's a lot of subtext.

Pitt is very good in the film, if you can get past the fact he does his "I'm eating in every scene" bit he's done since Ocean's 11.  The performance is nuanced and restrained - baseball famously wants to be restrained and some fans find demonstrations of emotion or showmanship jarring - something I am firmly not in agreement with, but understand during the game you have to stay focused.   And Pitt's Beane feels like a product of that environment.   There's still waters running very deep, and they sometimes spill over.

Beane's failure as a player and the lessons he learned from that experience - apparently told he was more or less guaranteed to be a generational talent, but instead he fizzled at The Show - taught him a lot about what to really look for and to not trust the kindly men who see a few things and want to sell you on the idea of someone as a second-coming.  

The bits with Beane's daughter are also good - and do a great job of tying up the ending and keeping Beane grounded.

There's the possibility that this movie should have been a 6 episode TV show.  The season is long and the personalities many in baseball.  The only character we really get to know if Beane, and even that is mostly at a distance.  I think tracking with the player portrayed by Chris Pratt, who gets re-made from catcher to First Base is a movie in itself.  I want to know more about Dave Justice, one of the all-time greats, and how he was at the end of the season as his age was catching up to him (and that's all he really is here - a pile of stats in a cap).  I want to know what happened with the wonky pitcher and how we informed further wonky pitching in the MLB.  Also, Jonah Hill is mostly sitting around looking perplexed, and he's a Yale guy.  Who is his family?  Why is he into baseball?  Why did he choose this life?  Or the old-school manager player by the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman - we don't even really know what he thought after the mid-point of the season.  

And, again, this movie is long.  And it's not like we don't have an entire sub-genre of Hollywood movies about baseball to know you can follow multiple threads. 

Because this movie is about baseball, it knows the trap of being romantic or nostalgic and both actively fights and succumbs to the beauty of the game.  It knows - as anyone with an subscription who watches all the AWS ads knows - that Beane's methods won out, but it didn't take away from the magical moments that make us love baseball and that there's heartbreak tied to that love.  Baseball can be metaphor, and the movie straight up laughs at itself for employing this idea, but that doesn't mean it's not true or lovely.  Or that seeing that game-winning homerun isn't the best dopamine rush you can get from something on TV.  

What's odd is that the movie doesn't really match what you quickly find when you google Beane.  He was apparently already doing this sabermetrics business by 2019, and he did it under the supervision of his boss at the time, not a young hot shot.  He was already remarried.  Also, this is all post 9/11 America and the movie really does not want for you to remember that fact - right up to showing Beane picking up his daughter at the gate when she arrives on a flight, which was shut down overnight on 9/12/2001.  

The real-life, current news is that the A's purposely tanked their 2023 season because they're really planning a move to Las Vegas, and probably looking to make a mint off the real estate from the location of the current A's stadium.  So all of that is hard to ignore as you wonder what new angles are being worked out by the front office.

*when she showed up, I was like "wow, that actress looks just like Robin Wright.  Crazy.  Wait..."  

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