At The Movies


Directed by Bennett Miller
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard
Malcolm says: In the early 1980s, my dad coached an under-14 boys’ soccer team to a state championship. He had a very talented but not very deep team. Slated to start the double-elimination state tournament against the favorite, he chose to take the forfeit, cleaned up the losers’ bracket without wearing out his super star players, then swept through and won the whole thing on fresh legs. The other teams’ coaches cried bad sportsmanship. His reply: “If you don’t like it, go get the tournament rules changed.”

It was an early lesson in avoiding conventional wisdom and learning what the rule book does and does not say. Michael Lewis (“The Blind Side,” “The Big Short”), one of my favorite writers, has made a career out of profiling people who ignore conventional wisdom. I’d been avoiding the book version of “Moneyball,” for the mere reason that, as entertainment, I find baseball too constrained and well, boring.

But the same things that make it so constrained make it great for stats, and stats can tell a lot if you read them right. The film does a good job of showing what the stats geeks of the time were trying to tell managers – never bunt, never steal a base, avoid big stars because they cost too much, and if you find the right undervalued players in the bargain bin, you can build a winner for not much money. I actually wish there had been more about the numbers, but I’m probably strange in that regard.

Both the leads are good – Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as his younger assistant who leads him through the world of stats (though the film doesn’t try to actually make him play the real life Pete DePodesta). One of the best lines in the movie is when Beane, a former first-rounder who washed out of the Major Leagues, asks his protégé/mentor where he would have drafted him. “Ninth round” is the reply.

The tension here is not just that Beane throws out the conventional wisdom, and the older conventional baseball scouts who practiced it, but that he seems like far too emotional a man to pull it off. He can’t bear to attend the actual games, works out constantly to relieve stress, is brought to tears when his tween daughter strums a guitar, and still wears the ring of a long-dead marriage.

Yet the whole thing works, or nearly. This isn’t your standard sports movie, with a happy ending, though it does contain a bit of that in the middle. Instead, we see Beane and his low-payroll team surge … and I don’t want to give anything away, but a quick Google search will tell you the A’s haven’t won a World Series since 1989. Instead, it’s a bit like life, filled with decisions, bad only in retrospect, and ending at a moment you don’t expect it to end. Sort of like being an A’s fan, I guess.

Tony says: I agree with you on the entertainment value of baseball. I didn’t grow up either playing it, or even watching it, and one of the best things I can say about the game is that it isn’t cricket. At least a long baseball game only lasts several hours and not several days, as cricket does. But I also respect that many people love the sport and will probably curse both of us when they read this.

But all of that is irrelevant as this is barely a baseball movie at all. It is, as you point out, a movie about bucking conventions. It’s a movie about organizational change and paradigm shifting that happens to be set in the world of baseball. The baseball aspects are there, of course, and are probably more interesting than actually watching a game (there I go again…). But this could just as easily have been a movie about rethinking the creative teams at the Rubbermaid Corporation or shaking things up in a military setting – baseball simply makes the concept far more accessible (not just because it’s a true story). In that regard, it’s a film that could be shown in management classes or in an MBA program as part of a case study on sea changes in institutional culture.

It’s also worth noting that solving a problem and doing something (anything) better than everybody else isn’t always a recipe for success. It doesn’t help if everybody else immediately starts to do the same thing – witness how many “buy ten coffees/sandwiches/massages and get the next one free” cards you probably have in your wallet/pocket/purse/car console.
I also agree that it works as a story and as a film, certainly helped by strong performances – including by the team of scouts and the manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who resist the proposed changes. The performances of the innovators wouldn’t matter without equally strong performances by those who are promoting the status quo – it needs to be a battle of wits and wills, and it is.

Where the film lost me a couple of times was in those intentionally emotional moments between Beane and his daughter. This is a film set primarily in 2001, and it’s jarring to have scenes in which his daughter plays a song (“The Show” by Lenka) that was released in 2008. It’s clearly not a film about the music industry or that sets out to catalog hit songs, but those kinds of details still matter to an audience. It’s not like it’s a film set 70 years ago with a song that was released 63 years ago that nobody remembers – this is a song that was in commercials just a couple of years ago.

But when I wasn’t cursing the music director softly under my breath, I was having a good time. This is a meaningful movie that also causes you to laugh out loud multiple times, more so than most overt comedies. Whether or not you like baseball.

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