Moneyball

{Moneyball opens in Seattle-area theaters on Friday, September 23rd}

May as well get this out of the way upfront: I'm a big fan of the books of Michael Lewis from Liar's Poker to The Big Short. In part because he's able to induce fascination in topics I generally couldn't care less about. Moneyball, his book that was ostensibly about baseball, was one I couldn't put down.  Which is really saying something, as I'm probably one of the only people who (on the rare occasions I've been dragged there) when attending a baseball game, has brought a book. You know – so I would have something interesting to do during the game.

It's in part due to the talents of Mr. Lewis that I liked Moneyball so much – but it probably didn't hurt that it's only tangentially (in my view) about baseball and more about what can happen when quantitative thinking runs smack into truthiness. Even if you're not as personally obsessed with nerdy about that sort of thing as I, who doesn't like to watch the little guy get the edge on the big fat cats?  And that's one of the several aspects of the non-fiction book by Lewis that transfers effectively to the big screen. Oh, and director Bennet Miller actually makes a visually rich piece out of what could easily have been a strictly dialog based endeavor.  So yeah – I think this is one worth seeing.

The based-on-a-true-story centers around Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland A's. They're a smaller market team that doesn't have the big budget required to buy whichever player they want. Without salary caps of re-distribution of league funds, the playing field within baseball is fundamentally unlevel. Hence those with the most money to spend are viewed as the inevitable winners on the field.

But Bean really, really hates to lose. He's a smart man, having turned down Stanford in exchange for the chance to play pro ball. Not to mention a skeptic regarding baseball scouting orthodoxy.  In part from professional learnings but also it would appear from his own unsuccessful experience as a teenager entering the game. So when it's time to rebuild his team after they're drained by richer owners, he has got to find a better way. Beane's expression of that learning is introduced in a great scene where he challenges the room of grizzled old scouts on how they do what they claim to do (i.e. identify talent).  For example, suggesting they need to move beyond evaluating opportunities by the hotness of a prospect's girlfriend. Not necessarily because he has a better way, but because innately he understands that to unseat a larger, better funded competitor he needs to do something disruptive.

Billy has identified his problem but struggles to find a solution. Until he and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics grad trying to work baseball as a quantitative problem, meet. There's near immediate recognition that he's found a secret weapon. Brand is transplanted to Oakland as the new assistant GM to the Oakland A's and proceeds to help rebuild his team.  They put together a group of misfits that traditional scouting has written off. But they all do something well – they get on base. They may look weird doing it, or be a bit older — but they get on base, which translates into scoring runs. And scoring runs wins games. Makes sense right?

The pair quickly run headfirst into the truism that logic and quantitative facts are often less persuasive than one would hope. Especially as Upton Sinclair famously pointed out: "it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." But Beane doesn't have a choice, so he takes his knowledge of the game and plays it hard, buying up what he perceives as undervalued assets at bargain basement prices. The rest is history…or at least a book by Michael Lewis, and this movie.

The performances are all solid, and the casting is a good match for the roles. From Pitt to Hill to the pain-in-the-ass team manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), each actor is well selected for the script. Director Miller weaves in camera viewpoint very effectively as a tool of the storytelling. Most notably taking the viewer inside some uncomfortable meetings by shooting directly over the shoulder of people in the room. Not to mention lots of closed quarters shots within the back office/locker rooms within the ballpark.

It's an entertaining film, with lots of snappy dialog and some good examples of critical thinking woven in. I'd worried about the treatment of future Lewis books after The Blind Side came to theaters with some of the most interesting parts ripped out. Not that I disliked that film for what it was, but Moneyball was well-acted, visually notable, and kept up the core points from book.  Oh – and if you like baseball, I'm assuming that aspect will be interesting as well.  Even though unlike me (whose memory of the book's sporting outcome was hazy), you likely know how this story ends.