Although advanced baseball analysis had been around for years, Michael Lewis's 2003 book Moneyball, about the Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane's using it to build their roster, helped to start an online industry of carping about player evaluation and team structure. The release of the 2011 film adapted from it has similarly started an industry of carping and re-carping about Moneyball itself. It's too bad, because it's a smart, engaging movie that vindicates the sort of thinking many of those critics would defend.
Brad Pitt vanishes in lead roles and flourishes in character bits, but here he seems to have finally found a film whose pacing suits the squints and tweaks that help him build an emotional canvas. His Billy Beane is at times resentful, desperate, humiliated, enraged, tender, vicious, empathetic and triumphant. Jonah Hill gives a breakthrough performance, sweetly comic, admiring and vulnerable. Both are aided by the script, which features Steven Zaillian's command for the emotional sweep of a film and Aaron Sorkin's patter. And director Bennett Miller has a style that suits his story: establishing shots that emphasize the enormity of baseball and hand-held moments that resonate with Beane's need for constant motion and scenes full of scrolling statistics and TV pixels that convey the game's new, daunting, ever-magnified world of digital information.
For a movie about numbers and alternative thinking, it never lacks for momentum. The familiar rhythm of offseason, spring training, trade deadlines, and the postseason keep everything on track, while other obstacles ensure audiences keep rooting for something. Even plot elements that have sandbagged greater movies (child actors, parent-child bonding) only add depth to Beane's "workaholic iconoclast," playing for a maximum of emotional utility at the least expense of running time—an efficiency that would make sabermetricians proud.
So why do some baseball fans dislike it?
One group of critics comes off as disingenuous, mercenary, or cranky. The disingenuousness is easy to spot: just look for anyone who admits that no one can predict the future, then lists anything that happened after the season on which the book was based as proof that the book was wrong. Beane made decisions based on the exigencies of that particular season; whether Chad Bradford sucked on the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays is immaterial. This critical take is akin to blasting a 1920 history of the Versailles Conference for failing to anticipate Hitler sending troops into the Rhineland in 1936. It stretches immediate valuation into a more favorable long-term examination wherever the immediate is difficult but the long-term damning.
On the money front, without naming names, it's not hard to find columns that use a review of Moneyball the movie to re-review Moneyball the book, while linking back to the authors' books or earlier columns that made the same point. Film criticism is just a vector for pushing pageloads or Amazon sales, garnishing warmed-over observations with tasty lines about how lucky Billy Beane is to have his image be culturally appropriated by Brad Pitt's.
Crankiness rears its head most often in the criticism that the film never mentions Oakland's three ace pitchers, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. It's a middling point, but one better leveled at the book, in which Lewis largely ignores the Big Three. Adaptations don't do advanced research to challenge the theses of the books they adapt. They don't argue different points and feature different people. Blasting the Moneyball film for this is useless and inane, like complaining that the Transformers movie stupidly featured Megatron when internet discussion since the cartoon went off the air proved how much everybody preferred Starscream anyway.
More importantly, such criticism chooses to ignore the purpose of the book for the sake of shaping an easy target. Zito, Mulder, and Hudson were dominant and brilliant, but if "go sign three dominant starters" were something quantifiable and easy, then everyone would do it. (The many post-Moneyball misadventures of the Red Sox and Yankees in this regard speak to the impracticability of such a dictum, even with bigger checks and newer stats.) Moneyball is a book about arbitrage, which is always a concept in flux. There will always be pitchers and stocks that fail despite great performance indicators, while others will exceed all expectations and become world-beaters. The trick that a stock trader and the A's had to learn was to write off the elements they could neither predict nor control, trust in luck as much as anyone else, then make the smartest decisions with their remaining money by looking at data the other guy—the Greater Fool—ignored or undervalued. The book is about filling in the blanks where you can and where you must, so it makes sense that the movie is as well.
Lastly, Zito, Mulder, and Hudson make for a less interesting print and film narrative. They were great and a joy to watch, but "Naturally Gifted Amazing Dudes Beat Up the Other Guy" is a crummy story. Superman is boring; there can't be drama without some stakes. Placing your reputation and franchise on the line because you trust that a bunch of underdogs have winning qualities that more privileged interests overlooked appeals to us as a classic human narrative. A talented steroid user like Miguel Tejada hitting a lot of home runs offers something less poignant than a converted catcher with permanent nerve damage and no other career prospects providing a good bat in the first baseman's slot. It's easy to mistake Lewis's book and the film's focus as one of ignorance than one of narrative and optimal economic concession. When you describe a struggle or face a struggle, your focus does not narrow on your strengths.
Yet another group of critics seemed more startling at the outset, but in hindsight, we should have seen them coming. They're the big Moneyball fans, the sports academics and internet polemicists whose lives were changed by reading the book and by its cultural aftermath. They have few problems with it, so for them, deviations from it present the greatest offenses. Father of Sabermetrics Bill James was left out. The scouts are presented as too one-dimensionally stubborn, stupid and mean, and manager Art Howe is marginalized as an opportunistic malcontent. Too much emphasis is placed on the small sample size of a winning streak instead of the seasonal grind. Paul DePodesta and other analysts are represented by Hill's composite character, Peter Brand, who is "too nerdy" and only feeds into all those sportswriters' clichés about math dorks living in their mom's basements. Fans' complaints deserve sympathy, but mostly they lack perspective.
Movies and history don't mix well. Braveheart featured the Battle of Stirling Bridge and didn't even have the bridge in it. In the movie's battle, William Wallace and his men should have been routed by cavalry. In real life, they used the bridge's choke point to bottle up the English soldiers, reducing their numerical superiority while throwing them off the bridge to drown in their armor. U-571's entire premise was the 1942 Allied capture of a German enigma machine, when the Poles had built a working copy as early as 1939 and then supplied the British. There was literally no point to the movie. From a visual standpoint, not much can trump Ted Turner's Gettysburg, in which the diminutive Martin Sheen played the august and nearly six-foot-tall Robert E. Lee, which is like casting Spike Lee as Kareem.
If history and movies traditionally fail to create common ground, getting exercised by Moneyball doesn't make a lot of sense, unless you believe that this movie was essentially the wonky sports fans' Lord of the Rings. Suddenly, all the complaints make sense. Bill James is Tom Bombadil. Not having Paul DePodesta talking to someone else about WHIP is like excising all the elven singalong bullshit that J.R.R. Tolkein loved. It's not wrong that these people are upset; it's just important to remember that adaptations can rarely please the superfan. Peter Weir's adaptation of Master and Commander met a lot of disdain instead of gratitude that it was even filmed. You could lose an entire day just reading one well-populated message board's replies to A Game of Thrones.
The thing is, all these reactions, from churlish sportswriters and passionate fans, miss the point. Writers will have the last word on Billy Beane, and fans can always nurture, adore and defend Moneyball the book. The ability for posterity to judge Beane's work and Lewis's writing isn't lost. The message lost, however, is that this is a message movie.
Sure, it's also Oscar bait. Brad Pitt could and should get nominated for an outstanding performance; maybe even Jonah Hill, too. It's also a safely mainstreamed "indie" story with "based on true events" gravitas and enough feel-good elements to qualify for a Best Picture nod. It's about a driven person trying to accept the disappointments and shame of his past by confronting its errors while moving forward, and he does that by embracing reason over superstition, by refusing to cower at the mystery of his own failure when someone else offers him a chance at understanding.
Funnily enough, the strength of the movie's message came forth in the worst possible audience for it: really old people. I caught a weekday matinee of Moneyball in a Florida suburb near a lot of retirement homes. The theater was packed with elderly people. I'm old enough to start getting discounts on my auto insurance for no reason, and the next-youngest person in the theater was probably 25 years my senior. When you're watching a movie with lots of elderly people, you get a pretty fair idea of what they think of it, because the hard of hearing talk really loudly in theaters.
What fascinated me about their responses was that a group of people who, demographically speaking, can often be extremely hidebound and suspicious of change not only responded positively to the movie but independently did so in the most ideal way for what the movie tried to accomplish. Both Beane and Peter Brand elicited the intended laughs, Beane a kind of scoffing laughter for his early commitment to upsetting a century's worth of order, Brand for his nerdiness and lack of appeal. Yet rather than being the broad strokes that fans of the book so clearly abhor, these were the broad strokes that a less pliant or sophisticated audience absolutely needed. Art Howe and the scouts might be too villainous for smarter tastes, but their obstructionism pushed the audience sympathies toward Beane and Brand. People started hissing when Art Howe appeared on screen.
Creating these binary opponents may be a little simple for those of us who read blogs, but, for these elderly audience members, doing so clearly established the roles these men played in a discussion of ideas. It staked out where they should place their empathy and where they should place their doubt. When Hatteberg hit his home run, a handful of them burst into applause. When the details of Beane's job offer from the Red Sox and his reaction appeared on screen, they gasped audibly. When the details of Moneyball's success for the Red Sox appeared on screen, they clapped again.
Moneyball is a movie, and it's meant to be a popular one, so it can't be history. Nor can it reconcile errors that Lewis or Beane made with changes from the subsequent eight years of the sport. What it is, apart from a character study, is a morality tale. Apart from being wryly funny, well-shot, -written, -acted and -paced, it's meant to convince people of the worth of reevaluating your conclusions, giving a fair shake to new ideas, and trusting that rationality—however beset by others' doubt and self-interest—deserves to win out over superstition. In that sense, the movie is both a delight and a commendable success. To both fans of the book's ideas and the sportswriters willing to challenge it on the basis of its own esteem for critical inquiry, it should be something to celebrate.