One of the difficult things when watching a film based on a true story is how much you are willing to accept when it comes to exaggerations, fabrications, and outright revisions to history. My role as a film reviewer and writer is to analyze and discuss the happenings on screen and generally not resort to making a film review factcheck journalism. Which is not to say I don’t want there to be truth and honesty in films dubbed as “based on a true story”. I certainly recognize that liberties have to be allowed at times.
We hear it all the time though right? There was no Erica Albright influencing Mark Zuckerberg to create The Facebook, King George VI did not have nearly the debilitating stutter as depicted by Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”, and in the legendary sports film, “Rudy”, the film’s inspirational tale of undersized Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger finally getting to suit up and play for the vaunted Notre Dame Fighting Irish was almost completely fabricated and described by Rudy’s head coach, Dan Devine, and Hall of Fame quarterback and teammate at the time, Joe Montana, as, “a lie and untrue.” And yet, what connects these films and countless others like them are that they are good, at times great and memorable films, told in a galvanizing manner which allows, or even forces audiences to buy in and gleefully release their willing suspension of disbelief.
And now we have “Moneyball”, another film that plays loose and false with the facts, but gets the basics correct. The film depicts Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane guiding his financially strapped baseball team through a debilitating offseason, where the team lost three prized free agents to other higher-paying teams, and were forced to utilize their muted and limited resources to rebuild and contend for a championship. Eschewing the techniques of old, Beane tore up the unwritten rulebook on how to sign and acquire baseball talent and replaced his departed superstars with an amalgamation of players that few, if any, in baseball circles found any value in. Beane asked for more payroll, was denied by team ownership, and in defiance of his coaching staff and scouting team, implemented a statistical and analytical approach to finding the right players for his baseball team.
In the first-quarter of the 2002 season, the Oakland Athletics were resting at the bottom of their division, on pace to win just 70 games. Eventually, Beane’s tenacity and sticktoitiveness led to the Athletics turning their season around, rolling out a record-setting 20-game winning streak and ultimately, a division title and club record 103 wins. Beane’s initial failures and ultimate success that year became the talk of baseball and a book was written documenting the processes, struggles, and eventual gutsiness of Beane as a General Manager. After that book, “Moneyball…” became a best-seller, director Bennett Miller and Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin adapted the story for the big screen. In many respects they have pulled off a masterful job in creating a film about a book dealing with things like OPS and SLG and BABIP and LIPS and EQA and other anagrams related to a baseball mathematics discipline known as Sabremetrics.
Anchoring “Moneyball” is a terrific performance by Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. Pitt embodies the character of Beane expertly and has rarely conveyed a character so tangibly and organically real. Perhaps it is a sign of Pitt’s maturation this far along in his career that he is so good in this role, but as Beane, Pitt is free of gimmicks or caricatured writing and simply delivers in line after line and scene after scene. Pitt plays well off of Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand (a characterization of Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow his likeness to be utilized in the film). Hill is also effective here, finding a rich depth few have seen thus far from the affable and congenial comedic star. Zaillian and Sorkin route much of the early moments of the film through Beane’s getting to know Brand, a Yale graduate with a degree in economics, whose youth, outside-the-box manner of thinking, and unbridled faith in his own statistical formulas are too enticing to pass up for Beane.
Director Bennett Miller navigates all of this well and to the credit of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the obtuse and disarming world of Sabremetrics and statistical analysis of professional baseball players never muddles down the plot and proceedings. “Moneyball” finds a synchronicity between being a baseball movie and not being a baseball movie. Baseball is naturally present in every scene but there is enough compelling drama taking place for Billy Beane both personally, as a single father to a 12-year old daughter he rarely sees, and professionally, as Beane tries to swim upstream against seemingly insurmountable odds. That he becomes a figure we can rally behind is impressive and “Moneyball” never gets caught up in the minutiae of what is happening in and around these characters and these players.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won a Best Actor Oscar in Bennett Miller’s last film, “Capote”, gives a measured and grumbly supporting turn as Athletics’ manager Art Howe. Chris Pratt (from TV’s Parks and Recreation) has some nice moments portraying Scott Hatteberg, a discarded and damaged baseball player who is given a unique second chance at success by Beane, when no one shows him any interest at all. Essentially, the main performances all click and the film moves along at a perceptive pace; Miller again showing that he is a steadied and impressive filmmaker, playing without gimmicks and benefitting from impressive camera work by Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception) and sharp editing by Christopher Tellefsen (Capote, Fair Game).
But there are massive inaccuracies with what is depicted on screen versus realities on the field and in the clubhouse. The list is long and exhaustive, but if you begrudge the little boy baseball fan in me, here are some important details everyone left out of the big screen version of “Moneyball”.
The Oakland Athletics had in fact made the playoffs in 2000 and 2001, losing in the opening round of the post-season each year. In 2002, Oakland had on its roster the eventual American League MVP, Miguel Tejada (portrayed fleetingly by former big leaguer Royce Clayton), the American League’s Reliever of the Year, Billy Koch (not present here), and “The Big Three” – Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. These three starting pitchers dominated baseball and combined for 57 of the team’s victories and Zito won the Cy Young Award for the League’s Best Pitcher. There is no Zito or Mulder anywhere I could find in “Moneyball”, and an extra with “HUDSON” emblazoned across his back throws a pitch or two here and there. Also, left out of the story is the fact that while Scott Hatteberg was perhaps a divisive choice in joining the Athletics, and much resistance was levied at him amongst the Athletics’ coaching staff, he played and he played a lot. Hatteberg was not often ignored in the lineup card, and in fact in 2002, he played in 136 games, had 568 at bats, hit 15 home runs, drive in 61 runs and had a combined On Base and Slugging Percentage of .807, third-best on the team. Gold Glove third baseman Eric Chavez? Nope. Not here. And lastly, Beane’s first free-agent acquisition, Jeremy Giambi, the beleaguered and troubled kid brother to the departed Jason Giambi, had already been on the Athletics for two seasons!. The Athletics players never had to pay for sodas in their locker room and had Billy Beane really worked out a deal where another baseball team stocked his team’s clubhouse soda machines for three years, we would have heard about it.
Now that I have purged all of that from my system, I recognize that most people who are likely to go see “Moneyball” will not care, think to care, or have the baseball knowledge to even know to care about the gaffes present here. The film packs in liberal and surprising doses of humor and thoughtfulness and Bennett Miller has again crafted a terrific film, astute and confident in the story it wants to tell.