Judge Erich Asperschlager is a five tool guy, although two of those are Phillips head screwdrivers.
"You can't approach baseball from a statistical, bean-counting point of view. It's won on the field, with fundamental play…You don't do that with a bunch of statistical gimmicks. Nobody reinvents this game."
In baseball, as in life, there are no sure things. For all the prognostication and declarations of pre-game chatter, once the players take the field there's no telling what will happen. A top-tier player might go 0 for 4. An untested rookie might hit the game-winning homer. An 11 run lead might vanish over the course of a brutal half inning. Baseball is a game of statistics and calculations, but it's also a game of chance. That's what makes it exciting.
If you're the one running a baseball team, that uncertainly can be infuriating. Baseball in the modern age is a high-stakes game, with average players signing multi-million dollar contracts. As salaries increase, so does the gap between teams that can afford the best players and those who can't. Conventional wisdom says that only rich teams win championships. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?
Facts of the Case
In 2002, the Oakland Athletics proved that you don't have to spend big to win big. General Manager Billy Beane, armed with spreadsheets and statistics, put together a low-budget team that made history. Not only did the A's set a new record for consecutive wins and make it back into the playoffs, but they matched the win record of the New York Yankees, the richest team in baseball. Michael Lewis chronicled that season—and the philosophy that changed the game—in his 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. After a rocky pre-production, the film adaptation of Moneyball hit theaters in 2011, directed by Bennett Miller, with a team of all-stars including Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Aaron Sorkin, and Wally Pfister.
In the late '70s, a security guard named Bill James developed a new way to understand baseball. Based on in-depth statistics, he advocated "sabermetrics" as a way to evaluate players and their effectiveness on the field. For many years, James's theories were considered nonsense by those who ran professional ball clubs—applicable only to fantasy teams and nerdy number-crunchers. It took a desperate small market GM to test sabermetrics in a real world scenario.
Moneyball captures the spirit of Lewis's book, while tweaking the dry bits to create a more compelling human story. The Steven Zaillian-Aaron Sorkin screenplay focuses on Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt. Pitt reaffirms his A-list status, carrying the film with a charismatic performance that gets to the heart of Beane's complexity. The events of 2002 are intercut with with flashbacks from the GM's early days, when he gave up a full ride at Stanford for promises of fame and fortune with the Mets. Due in part to the imperfect scout system he tried to change, Beane struggled in the majors, finding success in baseball off the field. Although Billy Beane's rise and fall is exaggerated in the film for effect, the low points make his vindication that much sweeter.
Moneyball is Brad PItt at his understated best. As an actor who became famous for his good looks, then respected for his willingness to take bizarre roles, Pitt has settled into the role of Hollywood elder statesman. He disappears into Beane, playing him as a man of contradictions—a flexible perfectionist cool enough to orchestrate elaborate trades but unable to contain his rage after a loss. A man who, even after throwing his lot behind cold hard facts, still refuses to attend games for fear he will jinx the team.
Pitt commands the bulk of the running time, but he's joined by an impressive group of actors, some better used than others. Jonah Hill is the biggest surprise. As Peter Brand—a fictional character loosely based on assistant GM Paul DePodesta—Hill is unusually sedate, showing none of his usual zaniness. Brand is a man who reserves his passion for numbers. He acts both as catalyst for Beane's shake-up of the A's and the character whose job it is to explain sabermetrics to an audience who can't tell OBP from TPR.
Phillip Seymour Hoffmann plays A's prickly manager Art Howe. He acts as foil, a representative of the system Beane is trying to dismantle. Hoffmann does what he can with the small role, but he mostly stands around and glowers with his arms crossed. Robin Wright is also wasted, appearing only in one short scene as Beane's ex wife. Other supporting actors fare better, including Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt as catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg, the embodiment of the film's second chance philosophy, and Kerris Dorsey as Beane's sweet and supportive daughter.
Moneyball has a lot of information to convey, and it does so in simple, clever ways. Some of it comes through the chatter that surrounds the game—audio snippets from announcers, analysts, and sports talk radio. The rest is presented in montage form. It's hard to imagine a sports movie without at least one major montage. Moneyball has several. As much as it tries to be a different kind of underdog story, it falls back on plenty of genre cliches. The Hollywood moments are more apparent when you compare the movie with the less exciting realities in Lewis's book. The A's may not have won the 2002 World Series, but they did change the game of baseball, paving the way for other teams to adopt Beane's ideas, including the '04 Red Sox—who took home their first championship in 86 years after hiring Bill James.
Nearly half of Moneyball is devoted to setting up the A's 2002 run. Beane struggles with the owner, his scouts, the team's manager, and with losing his three best players to higher payroll teams. By the time the film settles into the ups and downs of the season itself, the story is in hurry-up mode, condensing both the team's early struggles and the late-season winning streak that set a new American League record. The last game of that historic surge is the longest baseball sequence in the movie, building to a thrilling, sports movie climax. For a story about baseball, though, there's hardly any on-field play. Moneyball is more interested in the people who tried to change the game than the game itself.
Moneyball comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Sony, in a gorgeous 1.85:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that is devoid of edge-enhancement, compression artifacts, or noise reduction. Much of the film's beauty can be credited to the lush cinematography of longtime Christopher Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister. Baseball is a sport associated with bright colors and warm summer days. Pfister adds deep shadows and high contrast to frame the drama. Moneyball is the kind of Blu-ray release that shows just how great 35mm looks in hi-def when handled correctly, with crisp detail, rich color, and just the right amount of grain.
The strengths of Moneyball's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio are subtler than the visuals. Still, it is a dynamic, immersive mix. The uncompressed audio creates an open soundscape, delivering everything from quiet conversations to the roar of a packed ballpark, all tied together by Mychael Danna's minimalist score.
Moneyball comes with a meaty collection of HD extras. Despite some overlap, the bonus features provide a good overview of the making of the film, and of Michael Lewis's book:
• "Blooper: Brad Loses It" (3:11): Pitt trying and failing to get through a scene without laughing.
• Deleted Scenes (12:05): Three in total: a tense scene between GM and manager as Beane offers Howe unwanted pitching advice; a dinner scene between Billy and a new character named Tara; and an excised subplot about Peter's future with the A's at the end of the season.
• "Billy Beane: Reinventing the Game" (16:01): An overview of the film that explores its history and themes, through interviews with Miller, Sorkin, Lewis, Alex Rodriguez, and the real Billy Beane.
• "Drafting the Team: Casting Moneyball" (20:41): A look at the cast, from Pitt, Hill, and Hoffmann on down to the players.
• "Moneyball: Playing the Game" (19:27): This featurette focuses on the research and detail that went into recreating the baseball games, including a look at Wally Pfister's dramatic cinematography.
• "Adapting Moneyball" (16:27): A loose history of the film's production, focusing on the major ideas presented in Lewis's book and how those ideas were translated to the screen.
Underdog sports movies usually focus on qualities like "guts" and "heart." It's much harder to make a tearjerker about math. Moneyball does both, balancing human triumph with cold, statistical calculation. This film doesn't join one side in the battle between baseball's heart and head. It advocates, as Beane does, for finding worth in those considered unworthy and the wisdom of challenging the status quo—ideas that resonate with modern audiences, whether they like baseball or not. With a sparking script, award-worthy performance by Brad Pitt, and a stunning Blu-ray transfer, Moneyball is the newest addition to the lineup of great sports films.
A home run. Not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2012 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.