“Moneyball” is a movie about baseball that Brad Pitt wanted to make. But to say that “Moneyball is a movie about baseball is like saying that The Sopranos was a series about the waste-management business,” as Austin Murphy put it in “Brad Pitt Deals.” (September 26, 2011 Sports Illustrated).
It’s a wonder the film got made at all, since Pitt was really not a baseball player back in his high school days at Springfield (Mo.) Kickapoo High School. Wrestling. Diving. Football. But no baseball for Brad Pitt in his sports-playing days.
When Pitt read Michael Lewis’ (The Blind Side) book about baseball, he realized it was not really a book about baseball as much as it was a movie about believing in yourself and having the courage to buck the system to prove that you can do it…whatever “it” is. There’s even a scripted line from the scouts, who are critiquing the prospects for next year’s team: “He’s gotta’ be successful to be confident, and that’s when you’ve got something.” Years ago, Steven Tyler described his own success as lead singer of Aerosmith as “Fake it till you make it.”
The concept of success breeding success is something I promoted for 20 years as the CEO of a Sylvan Learning Center (#3301) I founded in the small town of Bettendorf, Iowa. I could relate instantly to the gamble that Oakland “A’s” team manager Billy Beane has made in deciding to revolutionize the game of baseball by integrating statistics to determine whom to draft. The team is looking for bargain basement deals that will unexpectedly turn out to be winners, giving it the appearance, at some times, of “an island of lost toys.” Their roster has just been raided of their 3 best players, and the cupboard is bare.
Beane de-emphasized the role of dugout managers such as the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe) and, instead, plucked “Google Boy,” as the plot dubs him, a young whipper-snapper dubbed Peter Brent in the movie (real character name: Paul Podesta, Beane’s fresh-out-of-Harvard assistant) who, in the movie, is a recent graduate of Yale. Brent (Jonah Hill in a nicely understated serious turn) tells Beane “Baseball thinking is medieval.”
Beane buys in to the premise that statistics can help make his struggling team (“We’re the last runt at the bowl.”) into a winner. The Oakland “A’s” at the time had a budget of approximately $38 million to compete with the $121 million of teams like the New York Yankees. In Jonah Hill’s character of Peter Brent, Beane sees a way to even the playing field. This is not popular with the old-timers on staff. As Beane, using Texas Hold ‘Em terminology says says to his young assistant, “Just you and me, Pete. We’re all in.”
When Brad Pitt read the book Moneyball, he recognized the universal themes underlying the story of a team that, from a dismal start, went on to set the American League record for most consecutive wins in a season (20 games). In 103 years, the record had never been broken, but the Oakland “A’s broke it in 2002, using what the grizzled veteran scouts termed “statistical gimmicks.” Not unlike “Road to Perdition,” where the universal father/son theme resonated with the Zanucks and helped propel the film based on a graphic novel written by Muscatine, Iowa native Max Collins, Brad Pitt wanted to play Billy Beane, a man he sees as someone tilting against windmills and fighting the good fight against odds that often seem overwhelming. Risking it all. Standing up for what he believes in. Being loyal to his principles and his team. The onscreen Beane says, “I made one decision based on money, and I said I’d never do it again,” alluding to his earlier player days, [when he turned down a full-ride scholarship to Stanford to turn pro right out of high school.] Although Beane’s success with the “A’s” earns him the offer of a $12 and 1/2 million-dollar contract with the Boston Red Sox, after wavering a bit he turns it down to stay with Oakland.
As the script puts it, “We are card counters at the blackjack table. We’re going to turn the tables on the casino.” With “adapt or die” as the motto, Beane locks horns with virtually everyone, including his dugout manager, his scouts, his players, his family, his bosses and himself.
The script by award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and Steven Zallion (“Schindler’s List”) is clever, funny and meaningful. Much of it wrote itself when genuine baseball scouts gathered to share their wisdom. Some of the people in the room when Pitt holds a scouting meeting are real baseball scouts, but you’ll also recognize Aaron Pierce from “24” (Glenn Morshower, 49 episodes) or Chief Jerry Reilly from “Rescue Me” (Jack McGee, 44 episodes, 2004-2007). You may also notice that the actor playing Scott Hatteberg, Chris Pratt, is from “Parks & Recreation” where he plays Andy Dwyer (48 episodes, 2009-2011).
The most substantial role for a former TV series regular went to Kerris Dorsey (“Brothers & Sisters,” Paige Whedon, 91 episodes 2006-2011), who plays Billy Beane’s daughter Casey. She was Paige Whedon on “Brothers & Sisters” until the show was canceled recently. It is Casey’s singing of a song about being “a little girl lost in the middle,” which she performs for her dad, that frames the movie. Singing about “a little girl lost in the middle” (a la Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle”), Casey’s pure voice speaks to her dad, who encourages Casey to share her talent and perform for others. One of Billy Beane’s scouts (Grady, played by Ken Medlock) whom he ultimately must fire for insubordination has told Beane (Pitt), “You’re going to have to explain to your kid why you’re working at Dick’s Sporting Goods,” when Beane keeps pushing his statistically-driven agenda in the face of opposition. But Beane has bought into Bill James’ book on baseball statistics, 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else. Even before that 1977 book, there was Earnshaw Cook’s Percentage Baseball, a 1964 Johns Hopkins engineering professor’s treatise on sabermetrics.
Brad Pitt saw Billy Beane as “the voice of reason speaking against the establishment.” We all know that speaking truth to power is not popular, but it made for some great 70s films, which I chronicled in “It Came from the ’70s,” a book with 50 representative films of the era. Pitt also appreciates movies of the seventies. He explained the difference between today’s films and the films of that great movie-making era this way: “In scripts today, someone has a big epiphany, learns a lesson, then comes out the other side different. In these older films I’m talking about, the beast at the end of the movie was the same beast in the beginning of the movie. What changed was the world around them, by just a couple of degrees. Nothing monumental. I think that’s true about us. We fine-tune ourselves, but big change is not real.” (Austin Murphy’s Sports Illustrated article “Brad Pitt Deals”, September 26, 2011). Director Bennett Miller shared Pitt’s enthusiasm for 70s movies, as do I.
As the third director on the film, Bennett Miller said, “It (“Moneyball”) seemed like a shoot-the-moon project because it was complex and messed up in 1,000 different ways.” Stephen Soderbergh had parted ways with the project when his idea for a more documentary-style approach was rejected as too expensive. The film languished in development hell for 8 years. Pitt, who has given 2 Oscar-worthy performances this year (the other as the father in Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”) says, “What we were trying to do is tell an unconventional story in the Trojan horse of a conventional baseball movie.”
Michael Lewis, in the 2003 best-selling book on which the film is based wrote, “At the bottom of the Oakland experiment was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why.” Lewis has said, “I always thought of it (Moneyball) as the biography of an idea, and I wrote it as a biography of an idea. And you can’t make a movie of an idea.”
But you can if you’re Brad Pitt, the 800-lb. gorilla of leading men.
Pitt saw the same themes that Rachael Horovitz recognized after 12 years working for Hollywood studios: Taking a new path. Having belief in one’s self to risk and move forward. Loyalty to one’s principles in the face of the temptation to abandon them. Horovitz picked up “Moneyball” in 2003 as a free-lance producer and, fortunately for her, “As long as Brad Pitt wanted to make this movie, it was going to get made.”
When Pitt talks about the film, he references 70s anti-heroes like R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection and Steve McQueen, in pretty much every movie he ever made. That was the premise of an entire book I wrote (It Came from the’70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now): that 70s movies were the best era for film since the 30s, precisely because of those themes and those performances. The contrast with today’s computer-generated blow-up-more-cars approach to movie-making is stark. What appealed to me as I spent 8 years of my life compiling a retrospective of 70s movies, culled from 15 scrapbooks of reviews of that decade saved in my basement for 43 years, also spoke to Brad Pitt. (www.ItCamefromtheSeventies.com).
The result is a movie with a heart, a brain, a spine and a funny-bone. Some of the funny was provided by the scouts. A sample: “This is the kind of guy who, when he walks into the room, his dick has already been there for 2 minutes.” Beane on the “A’s” standing amongst other teams: “There’s rich teams, poor teams, 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” Beane to a scout who mentions that one player “has a good face,” “It’s not like we’re looking for Fabio.” “He’s freaky—and not in a good way,” And—one truism articulated by Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) that explains why Beane was prepared to risk it all to find a way to make his team competitive—“If we try to play like the Yankees in here (i.e., while selecting new players to draft), we’re going to lose to the Yankees out there.” And that’s what led to Beane’s radical move to using statistics to give the “A’s” a competitive advantage…something that every major league team does now, but few did then.
The Mickey Mantle quote with which the film open is apropos: “It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.” (Oct. 15, 2001). Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” is used in one opening day montage, a particularly good choice, and the entire film worked, for me, because, as Director Bennett Miller said about his sensibilities and those of his star, “Both of us were drawn to some of the same films from the ’70s where you don’t have to have a character that stops the asteroid from hitting the Earth.”
Pitt is excellent in the lead role. Jonah Hill turns in a nicely-restrained supporting performance as Google Boy (Will Hill be as funny now that he’s creepily cadaverous?), and Philip Seymour Hoffman is also good as bullpen manager Art Howe, a man at odds with the boss. Stephen Bishop also does justice to David Justice, (to savor the pun).
A fine film about heart and risk and life…and baseball.