When people ask me if I know anything about sports, I always respond the same way: “I know of sports.” I couldn’t tell you the difference between a grounder and a slider, and apart from the involvement of President Taft I’m a little hazy on the concept of a Seventh Inning Stretch. But the reason why I don’t follow sports is directly related to the reason why I love sports movies: I only care about the outcome of a game, be it baseball or Boggle, if I care about the people playing it. In real life there are so many hundreds of life stories to learn about that I wouldn’t even know where to start, but in a great sports movie my attention is directed at compelling characters carefully chosen by professional storytellers. A great sports movie can be the greatest thing in the world, because it takes highly motivated characters with clear goals through a series of direct conflicts with similarly skilled antagonists. Moneyball is a great sports movie, even though the sports are almost incidental.
Moneyball tells the underdog tale of a sports team, the Oakland Athletics, or “A’s.” More specifically, it tells the underdog story of their manager, Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt. He’s under pressure to build a winning baseball team with a fraction of his competitors' budget, and since he's unable to afford star players he turns to a Yale economics major for new ideas. Said Yalie is Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, who believes the superstars that Beane has lost in the off-season can be replaced by less popular players who, when their stats are averaged, make up a rough equivalent. But this entire mathematical approach flies in the face of all sports “logic,” represented by a bullpen of scouts who concern themselves with intuition and precedent, and the sounds bats make as they connect with a fastball. Beane’s new methodology brings him at odds with his own staff and the sporting world in general, who frown on using percentages to make decisions previously based on romanticism and nebulous x-factors.
Moneyball takes Beane’s team from early failures to eventual glory, and his ragtag team of misfits learns lessons in humility and the art of the game. But Moneyball succeeds beyond traditional – and still highly effective – sports movie clichés because in the end it’s not about sports. It’s about the precarious march of progress, and the impossible odds placed against innovators by those who stand to lose money, and just as importantly face, if those innovators’ theories are proven. Moneyball could have easily been about the electric car or green energy or any other invention that has the potential to change the world for the better but makes rich white guys nervous about losing their current monopoly on power and public opinion. Director Bennett Miller just happens to use sports conventions to make this tale more rousing than any of those other subjects probably would be, and indeed “the big game” The Oakland A’s play towards the end is as cheer-inducing as any, owing as much to a strict adherence to mainstream tropes as the audience’s sympathy for the mighty thinkers in conflict with backwards “experts.”
But at the same time this conflict makes Moneyball a difficult film to entirely accept. It’s easy to sympathize with Beane’s worried scouts or his frustrated Coach Art Howe, played by a beleaguered Philip Seymour Hoffman. The script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin frowns on these men as borderline Neanderthals, or at least willing ignoramuses, but it’s hard not to see the argument from their perspective. The question of whether baseball, as an ideal at least, is better served by rigid computational theory is never addressed to my satisfaction. It’s not quite Atlas Shrugged in its commitment to this “Great Man” philosophy, and yet Beane’s heroic portrayal certainly qualifies, and by the end of the film the argument is still clearly made. Beane spends a large about of his screen time explaining that a personal attachment to his players would make managing the team objectively impossible, and the final moments of the Moneyball equate his ultimate professional failures with a similar sentimentality he falls victim to. Moneyball may be a fine drama, but it makes a one-sided argument that could have used a little more input from the opposing side.
I’m sure that given Aaron Sorkin’s involvement, Moneyball will be endlessly compared to The Social Network, which was likewise about intellectuals changing the dynamic of a social facet they previously had little part in. But that film lacked Moneyball’s innate conflict, since it’s not like Mark Zuckerberg spent all his time defending Facebook from vehement MySpace moguls. Miller's film is more crowd-pleasing as a direct result, but a little too judgmental to be quite as good. Regardless, it’s still an excellent and thought-provoking piece of filmmaking. I’m not sure that Moneyball knocks it out of the park, but a home run is still a home run.
Um… It is, right? Sports fans, help me out here.