Moneyball, and why baseball inspires the best sport movies

News Glen Chapman 21 Nov 2011 - 13:56

A film about baseball and data analysis might not sound like cinema gold, but Moneyball is a drama well worth seeking out, Glen writes…

After performing reasonably well at the US box office off the back of some positive reviews, Moneyball is set to arrive in UK cinemas on Friday. Its appeal in this part of the world will be less widespread than in America, but does it offer enough to capture the imagination of UK cinemagoers?

Having seen the film, I’d say it definitely does. I should state that I’m a fan of sports movies, and baseball is one sport that has produced some genuine classics over the years. Although I’m a fan of these types of films, I don’t actually know all that much about baseball – and the little I do know I’ve learned from sports movies.

This lack of knowledge doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for baseball movies, or indeed Michael Lewis’ excellent book Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game. I’ve read it a number of times, and when I heard it was slated for adaptation I was excited, but unsure how such a project would be approached, given the book’s emphasis on statistical analysis. 

Fortunately, screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin were involved, and given their considerable talent, a quality adaptation was never in doubt. The two have masterfully created a script that addresses the book’s key themes and points, while making it cinematic and palatable for a large audience. This is achieved by focusing on the source’s personal relationships, and using exposition in a way that gets its points across without feeling patronising or clunky.

Even if you lack any real enthusiasm or interest in the sport itself, baseball films still contain themes that appeal to wide audiences – specifically, the underdog tale, which seldom fails to strike a chord.

“An island of misfit toys” is how the Oakland As are described in Moneyball, as the team is assembled from a variety of players deemed undesirable by a number of major league baseball organizations, based on criteria that is proved to be outdated and at times ridiculous (“He has a good face” or “He’s got an ugly girlfriend” for example). In spite of this, the players prove to be able to compete at a high level.

The Oakland As are poorest of the poor in baseball terms, and have found themselves in a position where successful stars are immediately snapped up by the league’s richest clubs, reducing them to the role of a feeder for the financial elite. The pressure on general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is immense, since he must find a way to win and please fans while working within a tiny budget.

“There are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us,” Beane opines. A change is needed, and that change comes after a chance encounter with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), based on Paul DePodesta, a Yale economics major who is a believer in Bill James’ Sabermetrics system, which argues that the recognised way of scouting baseball players and measuring their effectiveness is highly flawed, and focuses instead on areas of player analysis largely ignored by those involved in the sport.

Moneyball’s premise, although biographical, isn’t new by any means. Major League (which borrows heavily from the plot of Slap Shot) explores similar themes but from a slightly different angle. In Major League, it’s not the club’s poverty that’s to blame for the Cleveland Indians’ collection of cast offs, degenerates and wannabes, but the new owner, who wants to trigger a release clause so she can relocate the team. Also, the team’s incentive to win is to gradually undress a cardboard cut out of said owner – now that's something we don't see in Moneyball.

Moneyball even shares similarities with Field Of Dreams, which itself is quite unique in terms of baseball films, in that it isn’t really about baseball but about obsession. In it, Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella builds a baseball diamond on his land after hearing voices from Shoeless Joe Jackson. Ray’s perseverance and obsession throughout this task mirrors that of Billy Beane and Peter Brand in Moneyball in many ways.

The aforementioned are completely clear of their task and persevere in the face of adversity. Both also face financial ruin, as Kinsella’s farm won’t produce enough money because the diamond takes up so much space, while Beane’s job is at risk should his experiment fail. From the outside, their actions seem crazy, but they have little doubt that they’re doing the right thing.

Field Of Dreams is, of course, about Kinsella’s quest to find peace with his father, and similar paternal themes are present in Moneyball. It’s Beane’s relationship with his daughter that prevents him from taking an incredibly lucrative job on the other side of the country, and really keeps his emotions in check throughout what would be a career-defining season.

One of the things that makes baseball movies so effective is that, while it’s a team sport, it allows for moments of individual brilliance, where the results are tangible and easy to measure. Granted, this is true with other sports, but there’s something about baseball that makes the duels and showdowns on the field much more cinematic.

The familiar battle between pitcher and hitter is a prime example. When captured well on film, these resemble western showdowns, and allow for a great deal of tension to be exploited in the moments leading up to the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand, the bat connecting with the ball, or the ball landing in the catcher’s glove.

Moneyball benefits from some excellent direction from Bennett Miller as well as masterful cinematography by the legendary Wally Pfister that, combined with a fantastic score by Mychael Danna, make these moments incredibly special.

Even my familiarity with the book didn’t lessen the impact of these scenes, since I still found myself on the edge of my seat – a testament to how effective the film is. Add some fine performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, which are certainly worthy of Oscar nominations, and you have the makings of winning film.  

If you’re a fan of baseball movies, or dramas in general, I’m confident that Moneyball is well worth your time. Sports movies have a long tradition of celebrating the underdog, and in many ways Moneyball is the ultimate underdog story.

Like last year’s The Social Network, Moneyball takes a subject matter that on the surface may not have mass appeal, but the sheer quality of its writing, acting and direction make it essential viewing. Not only is Moneyball the best film of its genre for some time, it’s one of my cinema highlights of the year.

Moneyball is out in the UK on Friday.

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