(Editor’s note: This shouldn’t be needed given the fact that the movie – and book – are based on a true story with an ending that every sports fan should already be aware of. But to fend off the trolls: Spoiler alert. Now carry on)
Without sounding too much like a walking cliché, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is one of my favorite books. Though it takes Major League Baseball as its source material, that’s not remotely why I found it so fascinating. When you got down to the meat of the book, it was basically a treatise on economics—how an organization that is otherwise constrained can find undervalued resources to compete in a system that is intrinsically unfair. If that sounds esoteric, it is. If it sounds boring, I’m not doing it justice. It is to Lewis’ credit that the book is as pleasurable a read as it is. To discuss market inefficiencies and oddball statistical approaches and create a compelling and engaging narrative takes some serious writing chops. Luckily, as Lewis has demonstrated throughout his prolific career, he has those.
Which isn’t to say at all that I thought the book could be made into a movie that wasn’t complete garbage. Books about ideas do not translate easily into movies that are inherently about stories. And while the book was full of anecdotes—some funny, some touching, some confusing and off-the-wall—none of them seemed particularly well-suited to inspire the sort of plot-based narrative upon which most contemporary films rely.
So I went to the theatre with more a sense of curious dread than anything approaching hope for an actually successful movie. What will they do to one of my favorite books? Will this just reignite the tired sabermetric debates of the last ten years? How can this movie do anything but fail to recreate the book it hopes to emulate?
I think that last question was probably my biggest fear, and at the same time, my most ill-founded. To its credit, the film didn’t try to recreate the book. It reimagined it, as something new entirely, and I found the movie—to my great surprise—rather wonderful.
The movie’s protagonist (I’m not sure the book has one, at least not a human one) is Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, played by Brad Pitt. We pick up the story at the end of the 2001 season, as the Yankees defeat the A’s in the playoffs. Beane knows he’s about to lose three of his best players to free agency—Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen—and the film establishes early on the stakes involved. Beane must replace these losses with no obvious resources: his minor league system is barren and his ownership group is without the funds to pursue major league talent.
Beane poaches a young analyst named Peter Brand from the Cleveland Indians organization (the Mark Shapiro character is a ham, and it’s almost worth seeing the movie just to witness his smarm). Brand has developed a new method of player valuation relying heavily on statistical analysis. Beane—a formerly hyped MLB prospect who was overvalued for his “baseball body” by scouts—doesn’t understand all the intricacies of Brand’s system, but knows that he must try something different if he hopes to compete with a payroll less than half of his main competition.
All of this jibes fairly closely with the book. While Peter Brand isn’t a character in the book, he is based loosely on Beane’s young real-life confidant and Assistant GM Paul DePodesta (who didn’t want his likeness used in the movie, I assume because he was to be played by Jonah Hill, which is pretty self-explanatory). The book places considerably more emphasis on the 2001 rule 4 draft, while the film barely touches on this at all, but overall, the baseball operations stories overlap more often than they diverge.
But the film’s biggest departure from the book deals with Beane’s relationship with his daughter. The book—a treatise on economic theory—has no use for the type of father-daughter mush that would ensue from exploring this angle. The movie, on the other hand, puts this relationship to great use, giving heart to an otherwise cold and analytical world. Beane’s professional life is spent figuring out how to exploit every inefficiency he and his analyst can uncover, but he spends his nights tending to the detritus of a failed marriage and navigating the world of a single father.
There are certainly some manipulations involved here. As an historical account, most of the business with Beane’s daughter is either over-stated or completely made up for the purposes of the film. Beane was already remarried during the 2002 season, with new children, etc. But of course, this isn’t the point. The movie needed the fictions , both baseball and otherwise, to succeed as a narrative.
And in the end, I think it’s why I found the film so successful. There were overt and constant reminders: This is a story. We’re trying to entertain you and make you think and make you worry and relate and FEEL. The book was a different enterprise altogether, one that hoped to open its readers’ eyes with new modes of thought and analysis. The movie has other aims, and though quite a bit more modest in scope, I found it no less successful.
Beane spends much of the film driving in his pickup truck, especially during the games he finds so difficult to actually watch. He rages at his steering wheel, screams at the radio, curses his manager and screeches his tires. It becomes a trope throughout the movie: Beane retreats to his truck to escape all the things he can’t control—to isolate and buffer himself from a world that too often is left to the iniquities of chance and the intransigency of emotion. It becomes, to steal from another.
So it was fitting that the film ends with Beane again in his truck, driving to Boston to accept the GM position of the Boston Red Sox, where he’ll have all the financial resources that Oakland couldn’t afford him. He is, professionally, as well-respected and accomplished as any in his field. As he always is in these scenes, he is alone. But something fascinating happens in these last moments of his isolation, and the film ends, without any victories of note, in triumph.
Despite its subtitle, the Michael Lewis’ book is not about the “art of winning an unfair game”. Instead, it deals with the science of aggregation and value. The film reimagines these notions—of winning and losing and what they mean to us. Relying on the conventions of fiction and Picasso’s wonderful claim that “art is lie that tells the truth”, the movie argues that winners can be losers, and, as Beane learns, vice versa. To its credit, the film eschews the values of the book. It’s a better movie for it.