I’m one of those “others”. I became an Oakland Athletics fan in 1996, when the team was horrendous and the Oakland Coliseum was being Al Davis’d. I stuck with it through the dark ages to the very timeframe depicted in Bennett Miller’s new film: the “Moneyball” period, when the team paid unexpected dividends and won far more games than it should have, considering its miniscule budget and random assemblage of journeymen and inexperienced youngsters.
I write this Moneyball review from the perspective of an obsessive A’s fan with a nostalgic fondness for the 2000-2003 A’s teams. It just so happens that the 20th game of The Streak (depicted in the film wonderfully, I might add) is my single-most favorite sports moment of my life. I was at that game, and it was pure magic.
As a film, Moneyball does what most sports movies try to do: it has something for even the non-baseball fans out there. Yes, this movie is ABOUT baseball, but It isn’t a “baseball movie”. Much like how Aaron Sorkin turned the concept of “a movie about Facebook” into the stellar and gripping The Social Network, he does the same thing here with his screenplay of a stiff book about statistics. He has a way of making even the dullest of source material sizzle on-screen. Who else would be able to make a scene involving Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane waiting for phone calls from various MLB general Managers intriguing?
The film pays significant attention to the character of Beane, which is obviously embellished a bit from his real-life persona. This is more of “the Billy Beane movie” than “the 2002 Oakland A’s movie”, which is perhaps why it will be successful at entertaining non-sports fans. Brad Pitt turns in a stellar performance as Beane, spending a lot of screen time by himself, thinking about things, chewing tobacco or eating food. We see his internal struggle as a former hot-chip baseball prospect who fizzled out and how he tries to cope with his failed playing career in the front office. Jonah Hill is fantastic as Peter Brand, the fictionalized version of Paul DePodesta. Hill, whose casting was widely criticized by many when it was announced, brings an understated awkwardness to his first real serious film role, and manages to inspire a few laughs with Brand’s wide-eyed “in-over-my-head” demeanor. He’s one of the brightest parts of the film, and will definitely turn some heads with his performance.
Being a big fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was hoping to see more of him in the movie. As manager Art Howe, Hoffman turns in a typically top-notch performance, but he’s barely on screen as much as he should have been. Also, Howe comes across as little more than a stubborn, old-school “this is my team, I will run the lineup I want to run” sort of manager. That’s basically what he was, but it is important to remember that he was definitely a factor in the team’s success.
As for the baseball aspects of the movie, it is stunning how well they captured the essence of that era of A’s baseball. There’s something totally surreal about seeing professional Hollywood actors playing real-life baseball players that I grew up admiring and obsessing over (particularly in this very same time frame). Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg deserves some kind of special Best Casting Oscar; Pratt portrays Hattie as unsure and apprehensive about donning a first baseman’s glove in the twilight of his career, having never played first base before.
Pratt’s scenes are among the best in the film. Pay particular attention to his conversation with David Justice (played by Bay Area native and Campolindo High School alum Stephen Bishop) in the kitchen area of the clubhouse; their exchange is one of the best little moments in the movie.
Bishop is great as aging star David Justice, while Casey Bond is a dead-ringer for Chad Bradford, the quirky side-arm relief pitcher. I had a few issues with the casting of other players, most notably Nick Porrazzo as Jeremy Giambi and Royce Clayton as Miguel Tejada. First of all, Tejada is from the Dominican Republic, while Clayton is not. It’s also strange to see a real-life former Major League shortstop playing another. I was also confused at the VERY tiny roles that Tejada, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito had in the film. Those 5 players were arguably some of the main reasons the 2002-era A’s were so elite, yet they probably have around 3 minutes of on-screen time combined. Tejada was even the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player, but you wouldn't know it from his minimized presence in the film. The movie’s focus on Justice was also somewhat odd, considering he wasn’t really as much of a focal point of the team’s success as the movie implies he was.
To nitpick even further, Game 5 against the Twins wasn’t a night game, nor was it sold out. Night games make for better movie scenes, though, and that doesn’t really matter much at all in the grand scope of the film.
I DID have a slight issue with the pacing, however. The first half of the film is heavy on talking, between Beane and Brand, Beane and the old-school baseball scouts who are very critical of his new stats-based team-planning, Beane and other GMs, and shots of Beane driving. When the film begins covering the record-breaking 20 game winning streak, it seems abrupt. All of a sudden they’ve won 12 straight, then BAM we’re at 17, then the stadium is packed and it’s the 20th game already.
I was hoping, from an A’s fan’s perspective, for more of a focus on the latter games of the streak, as games 18 and 19 were particularly memorable. It makes sense, though, to have mostly skipped over the ultra-specific moments of the streak, considering the focus given to the 20th game. The presentation of the events of that game, in which the A’s were up 11-0 in the third inning, only to completely blow the lead, was just perfect. The drama, the tension, the silence when Mike Sweeney smacked the 3-run home run in the 8th inning, it was all exactly as I remember it from the stands.
The shot of Hatteberg smashing the 1-0 offering from Jason Grimsley deep into the right field bleachers and pumping his arm in the air after rounding first is an iconic image that has ingrained itself in my subconscious, and the film captured it brilliantly. Hearing the always-amazing Bill King's original radio call of the home run gave me goosebumps; it was an excellent (and touching) decision to include his original calls in the film. In all, the way the film handles the 20th game is about as perfect as it could be, considering its overall tone.
The film’s final scene is powerful, and is a fitting way to bring it to an end. As a whole, Moneyball is nearly perfect, and should find itself accumulating Oscar buzz in the months to come.
From being an extra in both Oakland and Los Angeles (for the Beane-as-a-player flashback scenes), my anticipation for this film was absurd. It is simply awe-inspiring to watch a movie that depicts real baseball games that I will never forget, with real players I admired, played by real Hollywood actors. That’s not something everyone gets to enjoy in their life, and for that I am grateful.
The 2002 “Moneyball” A’s didn’t win the World Series; in fact, the cross-town rival San Francisco Giants made it to the Series against the division rival Anaheim Angels. That was a bit tough to deal with considering how great the 2002 team was, but that’s the reality of the Moneyball concept: it works to a degree, but it wasn’t quite good enough to get over the hump and win a Championship. Anybody who says “who cares about Moneyball, it doesn’t work, the A’s didn’t even win!” is missing the point, and the film does a fantastic job expressing that. What Billy Beane and “Peter Brand” accomplished, in terms of team assembly and the rationale behind it, was groundbreaking, and DID change the game as the years went on.
Moneyball handles these issues with a meticulous attention to detail, and in the end the film is sure to satisfy both my fellow die-hard Oakland A’s fans, fans of sports, or just fans of good movies. It was definitely worth the wait.