21/02/2012 § Leave a comment
In theory, Moneyball shouldn’t work as a movie. The protagonist loses in the end, and the underlying story is, in spite of the film’s best efforts to hide the fact, about advanced statistical and economic analysis. Really, this should be a bitter, boring movie. But it isn’t.
That’s not to say that Moneyball is a great film; it’s not. But by the same token, it exceeds every reasonable expectation of its entertainment value.
The film centers around the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his desire to win what he calls an unfair game. The game is unfair, according to Beane, because teams do not have an equal amount of money to spend on players. The Yankees, for example, have hundreds of millions to spend on their roster, while the Athletics only have tens of millions. Landing and retaining talent, then, is very difficult for Beane to do. This very fact is highlighted at the beginning of the movie when Beane loses Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi to free agency.
The focus in the clubhouse, then, is on trying to replace Giambi. Beane realizes that Giambi is irreplaceable, but a trip to Cleveland where he meets a lowly analyst named Peter Brand causes him to realize that what he needs to focus on is replacing Giambi’s offensive production. Because he has his hands tied by salary cap concerns, Beane hires Brand to help him select underrated players with which to form a team.
Things do not go smoothly at first, as the old guard of scouts and coaches don’t like the statistical approach to player evaluation. In fact, they claim that their human knowledge cannot be replaced by some number cruncher. Thus, the central conflict in the movie revolves around the conflict between subjective human valuation and objective statistical analysis. Really, though, statistical analysis is also highly subjective, at least in terms of optimization. However, the old guard simply does not like the idea that they can be replaced by some fresh-faced Harvard grad who relies solely on econometric models of value.
Eventually, Beane and Brand get their way via a series of somewhat humorous schemes (including cutting the A’s two biggest stars), and their theories are put to the test. The result is that the A’s set the record for most consecutive wins (20) and go from last place in their division to winning their division. Unfortunately, the A’s are eliminated from the first round of the playoffs, and Beane and Brand’s work is instantly discredited.
The movie ends with the Boston Red Sox’s owner offering Beane a job, mostly because the A’s cost-per-win several orders of magnitude lower than the Yankee’s cost-per-win. Beane turns down the offer, and viewers are told that the Red Sox end up winning a championship for the first time since 1918 using Beane’s methods while Beane stays with the A’s, still pursuing an elusive championship.
Even though the movie is fundamentally about statistical analysis, the attempts at humanizing the story largely work. Beane is presented as somewhat quirky (he never watches a game in person, preferring instead to work out), and he is also portrayed as regretting his decision to enter the majors instead of going to college because he ended up being a wash even though he was considered one of the best prospects of his time. Beane eventually warms up to his players throughout the movie, taking time to get to know them, to coach them (with the help of statistical analysis, of course). It helps that Beane is played by Brad Pitt, who brings a wonderful human warmness and complexity to this role.
Brand is played by Jonah Hill, he does an excellent job of playing the shy, nerdish stats geek. Beane encourages Brand to become more involved with the players, and Hill gets the initial awkwardness of Brand’s antisocial tendencies just right. Hill also brings some depth to Brand, in subtly portraying him as a bit of an overachiever who often seems embarrassed by his ambition and passion for stats and baseball.
The rest of the cast is compelling as well. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Art Howe, the Oakland A’s manager, and serves as an excellent antagonist to Pitt’s Beane. Chris Pratt (Andy Dwyer of Parks & Rec) plays Scott Hatteburg, a catcher turned first-baseman, and he brings an underdog likeability to the role. Other casting notes: Glenn Morshower (24’s Aaron Pierce) and Nick Searcy (Justified’s Art Mullen) bring their understated presence to coach’s table; Spike Jonze makes a mildly humorous appearance as well.
There are, of course, a few quibbles about the film. First, the pacing makes it seem longish at times; there are a couple of scenes where Beane interacts with his family that could be cut down. Second, the attempt at humanizing Beane through his interactions with his daughter feel a little forced and unnecessary. The film doesn’t really land the attempt, and it probably would have been best to forego it altogether, especially since viewers will likely pick up on Beane’s considerable sense of regret.
Other than that, the film is a good example of how to humanize statistical analysis. What’s most enjoyable is how small-time or washed-up players are given legitimate second chances even though the consensus is that they aren’t good enough. Especially enjoyable is how the idea of how using statistical analysis to choose players actually makes baseball more of a team sport.
There are a couple of major themes worth pondering from this movie, most notably the question of whether statistical evaluations make the game more human or less human. Some purists have complained that stat nerds get so caught up in analyzing the game that they never stop to enjoy it and watch it. And yet, without that statistical analysis, the drama of the A’s 20-game winning streak would likely never have happened. Is suspect that the truth of the matter is that as long as humans are playing the game, there will always be elements of human drama and glory to be relived time and again. As such, statistical analysis can definitely make it easier to field teams of so-called underdogs, and bring a greater level of parity to the proceedings, which should end up enhancing the dramatic elements is this very human game.
In all, Moneyball is a very enjoyable, and very interesting film. It’s not likely to end up as one of the most compelling dramas of all time, but it should provide an interesting detour in the world of sports dramas.