Honest Abe Says: 3 Stars
Lacking the depth of character and rich detail of Michael Lewis's book, director Bennett Miller and company take ample creative liberties, though the result is the best baseball movie in years.
It might come as a surprise that a baseball movie is up for this year's best picture at the Academy Awards. With Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zallian responsible for the script - two of the best writers in the business - and Brad Pitt not only starring, but producing as well, it begins to make sense. MONEYBALL is not just a baseball movie in the same way THE SOCIAL NETWORK was not just a Facebook movie. Sports stories don't often translate to great art, but like the film's protagonist championed, there's value to be found in things commonly deemed unattractive, or in this case, run of the mill. You just have to know how to look for it. It isn't difficult to determine what makes a film good. What makes a fact-based film historically accurate takes a little digging...
What It Got Right:
Bennett Miller's saga of the 2002 Oakland A's is hardly about the action on the field. The real story is what went on behind the scenes. Sorkin and Zallian's script is a moderately loyal adaptation of Michael Lewis's fantastic book. The film covers the general ideas that Lewis did: Oakland's criminally low payroll as compared to teams like the Yankees, general manager Billy Beane's quest for new baseball knowledge, and then his acquiring of that knowledge. Called Sabermetrics, a statistical analysis now used by most sports franchises, guys like Billy Beane, inspired by stat geek Bill James, set out to find value in players that seemingly had none. Just because a man looked like he couldn't produce on the baseball diamond, did not necessarily mean that he would not, or had not. Billy and assistant GM Paul DePodesta (on whom Jonah Hill's "Peter Brand" character is based) focused on one largely overlooked stat: on base percentage. The more often a player got on base, the more likely it was that he would score, and the more runs a team scores over the course of a season, the more it wins. Beane and DePodesta turned scouting into a science, doing away with the old methods, like a player's upside, his "five tools", or how pretty his girlfriend was (scouts actually correlated this to a player's confidence).
Major League Baseball loaned its archives, apparel, and the Oakland Coliseum to the production for authenticity. The filmmakers paid special attention to a few of the 2002 squad's poster boys for Sabermetrics: converted first baseman Scott Hatteberg, aging star Dave Justice, and right-handed submariner Chad Bradford. All three were castaways from other organizations that rendered their services worthless. And all three were vital pieces of the team puzzle that season. Also accurate is the complex trade deadline scene where Billy and Peter Brand acquire reliever Ricardo Rincon through deception and salesmanship. Other truths include Billy's frustrating career as a player in the flashback sequences, his 12-year-old daughter's presence in his life, his influence over the team as greater than manager Art Howe's, his refusal to watch any games live (and lift weights instead), his violent temper, and his penchant for chewing tobacco.
What It Got Wrong:
Some of its gaffs are forgivable ones, like the fact that Chad Bradford was not new to the team that season, or Billy's age was 40 that year, not 44. Then there's the stuff that changed for dramatic purposes somewhere between the book and the screen. For instance, the film communicates that Billy first learned of this new player evaluation science in 2002, and from Peter Brand, hired before the season began. In reality, Billy had long been familiar with Sabermetrics. A reader of Bill James for several years and a protege of former A's GM Sandy Alderson (also a James believer), Billy was well equipped to know what to look for. DePodesta, his right-hand man and indeed a baseball economic guru, had been hired before the 1999 season. The method was not new to Billy in 2002. In the film, it's Peter Brand, not Billy, who is the brains behind the operation. Billy is merely the mouthpiece with enough power to wield Brand's strategy. Billy knew what worked, and he knew how to get it. He was a master of the amateur draft and a ruthless negotiator. He got what he wanted more often than not, and he did it better than anyone in the business. In short, Sorkin, Zallian, and Miller do not give Billy Beane his due.
Ask any casual baseball fan what he or she remembers about the 2002 Oakland A's, and you'll probably hear of the starting rotation: Zito, Hudson, and Mulder. If not, you'll be told of the left side of the infield: Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez. The A's had the best rotation in all of baseball that year (Zito won the Cy Young), and the best position player in Tejada (the 2002 MVP). And yet MONEYBALL leads us to believe this was a ragtag group of journeyman nobodies. The team's stars are wholly ignored for the dramatic underdog story. But the A's were expected to win.
MONEYBALL gets more right than it doesn't. However, it's an incomplete picture of what made Billy Beane so interesting, and what made his team so good. While the Academy fawns over it, the baseball historian applauds the effort, though he knows an error when he sees one. Fortunately, the final product is good enough that those errors don't cost Miller the game.
“While the A's set the American League record for most consecutive wins with 20, the all-time Major League record is 26, set by the New York Giants in 1916 (but included 1 tie).”