Movie review: Moneyball

originally posted elsewhere: September 26, 2011

tl;dr: Very good, but not one of the all-time best baseball movies...

Brad Pitt (one of the producers, as well as lead actor) and company do a more than adequate job of bringing the story in the book Moneyball to the silver screen. But aspects of the story, namely the technical analysis of baseball players and the game of baseball that constitute "Sabermetrics", do not necessarily translate well to the action-oriented visual medium of cinema. Moneyball the movie is at its best when it shows the impact these somewhat arcane numbers have on people and the action on the field. But in the final judgment, Moneyball doesn't quite measure up to the all-time great popular baseball movies of the past couple of decades, a group that includes Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and The Natural.

Disclaimer: I read the book Moneyball, and as is the case about 90% of the time for me when I read the book before seeing the movie, I enjoyed the book more than the movie. Other people I saw the film with had a higher opinion of the movie than I did.

A movie poster with a rear-view picture of a man sitting in the first row of seats in a stadium with a green grassy field in the background, with his head partially turned towards the camera, overlaid with text of the movie's title, major stars, and small text with more information about the movie

"Sabermetrics" relies upon statistical analysis of past player performance and game situations to determine the best players to put on the team's roster and the field, and what actions they should do in a game. The first quarter of the movie, which is when the filmmakers have to explain roughly what "Sabermetrics" is and how it works, is slow-paced and mostly consists of conversations, with computer-generated pages of numbers rolling across the screen providing the only action at times. But what makes Moneyball compelling is when it focuses on the impact the Sabermetrics philosophy has on the many characters in the film: the players, the team's management and ownership, people outside the game, and ultimately the game of baseball itself. The film does build to a climatic moment on the field, and does a wonderful job portraying the drama involved in one of the key games played that season.

You don't have to be a serious baseball fan to enjoy Moneyball. A casual acquaintance with the game is all that is required, since at its core Moneyball is about human beings and relationships and how they are changed when a new way of thinking comes along. Moneyball also illustrates some important lessons of business management, in particular how people react to change. I recommend it for most, but wouldn't rank it among the all-time great baseball movies.

One other interesting (non-spoiler) aspect of the film: Brad Pitt is now old enough that they had to find a younger, similar-looking actor to portray the early-twenties version of Pitt's character. Evidently the miracles of Hollywood makeup artistry are not enough to make Brad Pitt look like a 20 year-old any more.