In 2011, Aaron Sorkin won an Academy Award for writing “The Social Network,” in which a young rebel repudiated conventional wisdom and changed how we use the internet and social media. This year, Sorkin is back with “Moneyball”–adapted from the wildly popular book by Michael Lewis (2003)– a new movie he co-wrote with Steven Zaillian and Stan Chervin, about a middle-aged manager who also turned conventional wisdom on its head and changed the game of baseball. Like “The Social Network,” “Moneyball” tells a great story about a passionate outsider. It is one of the best films of 2011 so far.
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The film tells the true story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who faced a dilemma after the 2001 season. His underdog baseball team lost some of its best players and had only a small payroll with which to replace them. Beane had to start over and build a new team without the financial resources of the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, for example.
Pitt plays Beane as an optimistic and underestimated GM who knows how to make the most of a tough situation. Beane also knows how to negotiate good deals with his rival teams. In one well-done scene, Beane manipulates, cajoles, and connives other general managers so he can get the players that he wants at a cost he can afford.
Throughout the story, Beane is assisted by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a nerdy baseball analyst who looks at the game differently than recruiters and baseball experts. Instead of building a team through players, Brand advocates building a team through wins. That means evaluating undervalued players more carefully and determining whether or not those players have the ability to get on base.
Getting on base is important; being able to demand a multi-million dollar salary is not.
There are a lot of important themes that run through this story of Beane assembling a team that Brand refers to as an “Island of Misfit Toys.” One of the most important aspects of the story is the creativity that Beane uses to build a quality team without paying enormous salaries for overpriced players. The underdog message in this story is clear but it’s never played for sentimental value. The story isn’t about an underdog beating the odds and squashing the big-timers; it’s about a GM who built a team through a unique method and fought for players that other teams wouldn’t think of drafting.
As a baseball fan, I was impressed by how intelligent “Moneyball” actually is about the sport. There are some sports movies that use the sports as a starting off point and never really involve the audience in getting to know the sport itself. “Moneyball” doesn’t do that. It shows players, managers and coaches doing what they do every day. Art Howe, the A’s manager, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman with the gruffness and the intensity that could be expected from a coach who watches as his GM makes wild choices about the team.
“Moneyball” also uses flashbacks well to show Beane’s history as a failed player himself. That experience helps Beane make certain decisions throughout the story as he defies the experts and helps create a strong team.
“Moneyball” is a well-written and incredibly smart story about overcoming the odds, baseball, and the idea that building a baseball team doesn’t require a massive payroll.