I loved the Moneyball book and am a full-fledged baseball stat nerd, but last week I expressed skepticism of its potential as a movie. Would anyone go to see a movie about the business of baseball? The answer to that question is apparently yes, as it grossed over $20 million in its opening weekend, no doubt fueled by the star power of Brad Pitt and a significant amount of critical acclaim. You might not enjoy baseball in the same way that I do, but most critics (and my wife) suggest that it has merit as more than just a genre film. Now that I’ve seen it, I have to agree with those critics. It’s a very entertaining movie.
Yes, the movie takes some significant liberties with the facts in order to move the story along. I have no idea how much of the ex-wife/daughter storyline is true, although Billy Beane’s baseball past is fairly accurate from what I remember (he could have played QB at Stanford instead of signing with the Mets). The animosity between Beane and (manager Art) Howe in the movie is mostly fabricated. Jeremy Giambi wasn’t a new signing in 2002, and Scott Hatteberg was an everyday player that year, although he basically only played DH until June.
The movie stayed true to the book in every important way. Concerns I had about the portrayal of the so-called “Moneyball philosophy” and stat geeks in general were overblown. The movie understands that Beane’s goal was to maximize the use of his resources. It makes no attempt to joke about analyst “Peter Brand” living in his mother’s basement or not having what it takes to be an athlete, which would have been a setup for an easy laugh for a less disciplined screen writer, however untrue a portrayal it might be.
I was concerned that the movie would rely too much on relatively trivial moments to really be engrossing from a baseball perspective, and this is true to some extent. A trade for Ricardo Rincon is not the kind of thing that turns a team around, and a 20-game win streak is not exactly Game 7 of the World Series.
However, it was clear from the outset that this movie was only peripherally about achieving glory on the baseball field. Rather, it was plainly about a man driven to make the most of his circumstances and at the same time make sense of his own failed career. This was the most compelling part of the movie for me: the expert way in which Beane’s past was brought into the present to create a character who is perpetually on the brink of figuring everything out, only to never quite get there. I think this is what makes Moneyball relatable to anyone who may have only seen it because of Brad Pitt or the critical praise—everyone understands what it means to fail and then want to know why.
While the real Billy Beane’s motivations may not align perfectly with those of his movie counterpart, the liberties taken to create an interesting movie character are not so large as to make Moneyball a bad movie from an enthusiast’s perspective. I’m not so tied to the real-life facts related to the story that I can’t enjoy the movie for what it is: a well-written story with good acting. The baseball scenes are well put-together and accurate, even if they mostly ignore Oakland’s true key players from that season. The scene with John Henry at Fenway Park brought back memories of my visit there last year, but more importantly, it represents a great moment where we see what really matters to Billy Beane.
I’ll stop short of attempting to grade Moneyball, since it means something to me that is entirely different from what it will mean to most moviegoers or even most baseball fans. I thought it was both entertaining and faithful to its source material, a book which was meaningful for me in a different (and less emotional) way. It’s a good movie to see whether or not you are a baseball fan, but particularly if you are one or have interests in the business world. Most anyone who is reading this will know that any movie glamorizing the appropriate use of baseball stats is probably going to be a winner in my book. So as you might have guessed had you just skipped here from the beginning of this review, I think Moneyball the movie is a solid winner.