Who doesn’t love an underdog story?
Moneyball tells the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, a team destined for failure, and their general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). The A’s are a small-market team with almost no money to compete for the top talents in baseball, and they just lost three of their best players. Beane is responsible for putting together a winning team, but when he asks for more money, he’s turned down. He’s a man used to rejection and failure – he was once considered by the conventional wisdom of baseball scouts to be an elite prospect, but ultimately never quite made it as a player. But he’s persistent, and he knows that there has to be another way
Beane turns to analytics expert Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) for help, and with his insight, comes to the realization that the conventional wisdom is flawed. The scouts were wrong about Billy Beane the prospect – maybe they’re wrong about other things, too? The two go on a quest to build a successful team by taking advantage of a marketplace where players are valued for all the wrong reasons.
All around baseball, certain things are universally valued: The ability of a player to run fast, make impressive plays, to get hits, to throw hard, to help teammates score. But they’re looking for talent in all the wrong places – there are players out there who are criminally undervalued, players like Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), who can’t field well, like David Justice, who are too old, like Chad Bradford, who throws funny, or Jeremy Giambi, who’s had off-the-field drug issues. Beane assembles a ragtag group of these undervalued cast-offs, assembling a team of underdogs to play for an underdog team. It’s actually not too far off from what villainous owner Rachel Phelps does in Major League.
Unsurprisingly, the strategy is met by confusion and opposition from, well, everyone. Television and radio personalities, scouts, coaches, even some of the team’s own players, put pressure on Beane and call him crazy. Conventional wisdom is a tough thing to overcome, and it’s all too easy to imagine a world wherein, after a month of the team struggling, Billy Beane got fired and replaced by a more conventional thinker.
For a film about baseball, Moneyball doesn’t feature all that much baseball. Instead, it’s really interested in the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s rather telling that the best sequence in the film is a scene, midway through, in which Billy Beane decides that it’s time to make some trades. In real life, Billy Beane is famous for his aggressive trade-making, and Brad Pitt successfully channels that spirit and energy. When he’s wheeling and dealing, Billy Beane is alive.
As a whole, Moneyball is really interested in the conflict, in the existential debate between conventional wisdom, represented by a number of players, most notably Philip Seymour Hoffman as team manager Art Howe. Moneyball manages to criminally underuse the late great Hoffman, but I digress. Howe refuses to play the players that Beane gives him, so Beane retaliates by trading them away. Check and mate. And it works; suddenly the team goes on an incredible win streak. Turns out, Billy Beane may have been onto something. The team turns it around, and conventional wisdom is, slowly but surely, overturned.
Where the film struggles is in the periphery. The film depicts moments from Beane’s life, showing his daughter and his ex-wife in brief moments. It’s shamefully wasted screentime, adding almost nothing to the film. Did we really need the great Robin Wright to appear as Beane’s ex-wife for just one scene? Probably not. All we needed to know about Billy Beane’s personal life is that he was a “can’t-miss” prospect who flamed out. Everything else is irrelevant.
Luckily, the film spends most of its time with its central conflict, the undermining of a century of status quo thinking in baseball. When Moneyball spends its time being about rebellious thinking, it’s a special film.