Spoiler alert: This post is a discussion of the movie not a review – clearly a one-side “discussion” but nevertheless written with the assumption that the reader has seen the movie and knows how it ends.
Moneyball is a visually dark and cluttered movie. The Bay area sky is always gray. The interiors are dimly light. Even the baseball field scenes have a yellowish-gray tinge and the most prominent features of Brad Pitt’s face are the shadows produced by the bulging bags under his eyes. Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, spends hours driving aimlessly. So we get jumbled shots of decaying industrial parks and dirty freeways. The total effect is to mute the impact of Beane’s personal demons and to frustrate the viewer. The book Moneyball by Michael Lewis was very clear about Beane’s almost pathological need to win and his consequent inability to watch his team, the Oakland A’s, play in real-time. It is possible that all the cluttered jerky shots of Beane and his wandering SUV are meant to help the viewer feel the man’s anguish but they just induced headaches in this viewer.
The scenes with Pitt and Kerris Dorsey who plays Beane’s daughter were excruciatingly trite. They were written to give Billy Beane a reason to turn down the Boston Red Sox’s humongous job offer at the end of the film, but a strong case can be made that the real reason Beane stayed at Oakland was because he knew he couldn’t take the pressure from Boston fandom. The book makes it clear that Billy Beane could not perform under the high expectations that he had for himself and that the baseball world had for his career. In the movie Brad Pitt’s voice is flat and toneless. His lines are well-written but we never hear the red-faced rage, the intensity that Billy Beane carried in his gut It may be in life that Beane is soft-spoken and uninflected but inside he was a fiery competitor. That never came through in Pitt’s acting.
This is a math blog so what about the statistics? Baseball data can be used in three ways – to chose players to draft and trade for, to improve an individual player’s on-field performance, and to restructure decision-making during game time. Moneyball( the movie) with a few brief scenes does a good job of showing how revolutionary thinking about how a single data item, the on-base percentage, could improve a ball club. The meetings with the Oakland A’s venerable scouts were particularly effective at contrasting the old and new thinking. As to how the study of individual statistics could improve a player’s performance, a piece was missing. The movie showed the new assistant general manager portrayed nerdily by Jonah Hill discussing with the A’s in front of computer monitors their tendencies to hit such and such a pitch in such and such a situation. but never showed with game footage the individual effect of that knowledge. Billy Beane and Art Howe the manager played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman were at odds on who to play and how to manage. Yet we never saw new on-field tactics if there were any. The movie hinted at some – to never bunt, to throw to first if the other team bunts. Yet we never saw the on-field followup. Arguments can be made to have the best hitter always lead off followed by the second best hitter etc. The good players will get more at-bats for example. Using a strategy like this would be revolutionary not evolutionary. I am remind of this quote by Kelly McGonigal discussing brain adaptations for willpower, “Evolution is like Microsoft rather than Apple: Instead of redesigning something, evolution slaps on a patch.”
As a sports movie Moneyball works. The new statistical view does result in a winning team. Vindication is always satisfying. As a psychological study of a special individual, Billy Beane, Brad Pitt looks beaten down not purposeful or passionate. As an argument for data-driven decision making, the movie provides only compelling anecdotes.
As entertainment the movie needed more light and passion. As treatise on rational decision making, the movie could have at least hinted at applications in the larger world say in our other national game – politics.