Moneyball is not a movie about baseball, just as The Social Network, the last film by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) was not a movie about creating an internet site. The secret to Sorkin’s success, rather, lies in his ability to take heady, potentially obtuse subjects and chisel out the essential drama. Both films are ultimately about brainy, gutsy characters who go all-in against all odds on an idea they believe in. In that sense, they could both be considered almost religious films, dressed in the trappings of our two great American loves – business and sports.
Moneyball and The Social Network share many traits. Both movies are smartly-scripted, at times funny, engaging, entertaining, and ultimately easy to swallow. They toss around facts and lingo in a way that feels in sync with the way we now use information to amuse ourselves. They cater to our undying loyalty to the underdog. They employ characters with just the right dash of personal ambiguity to make them undeniably likable in their measured un-likability. And by resolving both movies on a note one half-step below Hollywood happy and with an open-ended sense of characterization, Sorkin shows just the right amount of dramatic moderation to make audiences think his movies are better than they actually are.
Much has already been made of Sorkin’s feat in turning Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, into a feature film, but that really isn’t what Sorkin has done here. Lewis’ book is a heady analytic examination of sabermetrics, a revolutionary statistical approach to evaluating baseball players. Along with director Bennett Miller (Capote), the writer has instead written a more conventional style of sports movie, told not from the perspective of the players, but of the general manager, the man in charge buying, selling, and trading the team’s players. The Oakland A’s GM is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who was once a touted prospect in his own right before his career flared out and he moved to the A’s front office. The challenge Beane faces as the A’s GM is that he is running a team with a budget that is roughly less than a third of what large franchises, like the New York Yankees, have to spend on their players. As Moneyball opens, the A’s successful 2001 season ends with a loss in the divisional playoffs. Weeks after, the team’s three stars, developed within the A’s organization, are bought by the big dog teams in free agency.
The movie then follows Beane’s struggle to create a winning ballclub on pennies, and the solution comes in an epiphany provided by the nerdy young Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whom Beane meets during an unsuccessful trade negotiation with the Cleveland Indians. Brand tells Beane about sabermetrics, a way of looking at baseball not in terms of star athletes, but rather in the nut-and-bolts results needed to win games, such as getting runners on base and scoring runs. As a result, Beane signs a roster of seeming scrubs who excel at unsexy talents like drawing walks and sacrifice flies. It’s a baseball basics approach to the game that will be familiar to Texas Rangers fans; current Rangers’ manager Ron Washington was an assistant coach on Beane’s 2002 A’s squad.
Of course Beane’s adoption of sabermetrics didn’t happen as dramatically in real life as it is depicted in Moneyball. Even before 2002 the GM was developing players using some of the ideas. And Hill’s character, Peter Brand, is actually a hybrid of a number of influential personalities who helped shaped the A’s surprisingly successful 2002 roster. But those factual details show us how Sorkin goes about crafting his dramas. He is a clean writer, and he sets his characters in motion with a formal, almost classical touch. Beane propels the plot’s motion forward, and tension is created both by situation and the grumpy manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a less than dynamic, though dramatically efficacious role. The struggle, powered by Pitt’s superstar likability and Sorkin’s razor sharp dialogue, can’t help but entangle the audience in this simple story. Even if you know everything the A’s achieved and didn’t achieve in 2002, you can’t wait to see it unfold in the larger than life.
Sorkin is really a good screenwriter, and yet what lingers with me after seeing his movies is a sad sense that good screenwriters are all the more rare these days – or at least it is rare that good screenwriters’ works get made. Moneyball should not be the cinematic event it is being made out to be. There should be a dozen movies every year that are as good as Moneyball. That said, I’ll take as many movies Sorkin can churn out – they are enjoyable, enthralling, and transporting. But they also fall short of the kind of ambition our uneasy times seem to currently demand.
Moneyball, like The Social Network, is at its heart an affirmation of the human spirit and of that American everyman capacity for courage and the extraordinary. As a film, Moneyball most resembles the work of someone like Frank Capra, who produced some of the most beloved American films and yet whose work always seems crimped by the sentimentality of American’s vision of itself in the 1950s. You can see a similar nostalgia in Moneyball. For example, there is not a single mention of steroids in the film, despite the fact that the film is set during the doldrums of that shameful sporting era and that one of the A’s players, Jason Giambi, is steroid poster boy. That omission speaks to the kind Norman Rockwell vision that characterized Capra’s films and which sneaks into both Moneyball and The Social Network. The line, “It is hard not to be romantic about baseball,” repeats throughout the movie. And we movie lovers love romance.