Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My pitch for MONEYBALL

SPOILER ALERT:  I tell what really happened, not just what happened in the movie. 
I loved MONEYBALL, but not for the reasons you think. Yes, it’s a baseball movie and contained the usual crackling dialogue from Aaron Sorkin (Steve Zaillian is also credited but a lot of that snappy patter is way more WEST WING than SCHINDLER’S LIST), and Michael Bay didn’t direct it.

There are terrific performances (it’s always weird for me to see Hollywood movie stars playing people I actually know), a lovely tone, and thrilling play-by-play calls by the late Bill King (who I hope is inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame next year). But what I appreciated most was what a fantastic adaptation the movie was. Not the adaptation from the book, MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis (although props for making non-visual material come to life and be dramatic), the adaptation of real-life events to justify the story they wanted to tell. There are things they forgot to mention. There are events that never occurred. This is called “creative license” and if I were writing this screenplay I would have done the exact same things they did (although not as well).

All movies “based on a true story” take creative license. “Real life” doesn’t boil down neatly into two entertaining hours. But the audience usually isn’t aware of the details of the real story. I didn’t know any of the particulars of SOCIAL NETWORK – who was in what meeting, who was suing who for what, or how do you attach pictures to your status updates on Facebook?

But the 2002 Oakland A’s season is a matter of public record. We know how many games they won or lost. We know how long their winning streak was. We know they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. We know Billy Beane didn’t take the job as General Manager of the Red Sox. Yet Sorkin and Zaillian managed to bend the tale so artfully that they were able to tell the story they wanted to tell and more impressively – hold our interest dramatically even though there is no real suspense. That’s screenwriting, kids!

Some examples:

The movie would have you believe the Oakland A's won all these games based solely on the Moneyball principles. Those principles were a key factor, but there were others that were conveniently omitted. Like the fact that the A’s had the best starting rotation in baseball that year. You win on pitching and Oakland had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. Zito won the Cy Young Award (best pitcher in the American League). I don’t think his name was mentioned once. That’s like if someone does a movie on the success of MAD MEN and never mentions Jon Hamm.

The A’s shortstop, Miguel Tejada won the Most Valuable Player award that season. He was mentioned in MONEYBALL but only in passing. So to return to the MAD MEN analogy – no Jon Hamm and just a fleeting reference to Elisabeth Moss.

But again, I would have done the same thing. And I don’t think those omissions made the movie any less legitimate. Why? Because it was Billy Beane who found those pitchers and other great players. So maybe “why they won” was skewed but the fact that “they did win” was true and he was responsible. It’s not like he’s the new General Manager who comes sweeping into town with all these revolutionary ideas and the team suddenly wins. All of the players on the field would have been signed by the previous GM. That movie would be completely bogus. This one wasn’t.

Trades are very much in the public eye. They’re debated among fans for years. I'm still pissed the Dodgers traded Sid Fernandez for Bob Bailor.  The movie suggests Beane was pissed that the manager, Art Howe was playing Carlos Pena instead of the player he wanted. So he got on the phone and in two minutes traded Pena. Uh, no. Actually Pena was part of a complex three team trade with the Tigers and Yankees and was actually just the “player to be named later” part of that deal. (That’s the trade that sent Jeff Weaver to New York, Yankee fans.) And it was in the middle of the season when the A’s were already winning.

In real life, Billy Beane so controlled his manager that he told him where to stand in the dugout during games. This is all in the book.

Still, none of that detracts from the film’s narrative. Pena was traded. Just not how they said. What an exciting ten minute sequence that would have been watching Billy Beane on the phone to the Yankees and Tigers, names being thrown out and rejected. Questions about everyone’s contracts. Health reports faxed back and forth. Oh, and the little matter of needing approval from Major League Baseball before any trade can become finalized. Yeah, that would have been riveting filmmaking.

So what’s MONEYBALL really about? The studio is saying it’s not really about baseball. Bullshit. It’s all about baseball (but you don't need to like baseball to enjoy this film). Others say it’s about the underdog and beating the system. It is, certainly on the surface. But for me this is a movie about the art of storytelling. And in that department, MONEYBALL wins the pennant. Or at least gets into the playoffs. And does better than the Oakland A's did.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hudson, Zito, and Mulder. That's the "money" of "Moneyball." The rest of that stuff is pure nonsense. Beane is still in place. The pitchers aren't and the A's are awful.

DJ said...

No, it's not nonsense. Back then, no one except Beane and the Athletics gave a damn about a player's on base percentage. Thus, that attribute was economically undervalued. Beane took advantage of it, and had success. Now, EVERYONE knows the value of OBP.

As Ken might know from personal experience with the Mariners, the most recently undervalued attribute in baseball is defense, partially because many of the commonly-known defensive statistics are gibberish. Many teams have created their own measurements to try and properly measure and value defense. The Mariners in the last two or three seasons have attempted to replicate Beane's success, only with obtaining good pitchers and defensive players. Sadly, their offense is so bad, they end up losing 90 games by scores of 3-1.

Jay said...

Is that Foster Brooks in the first photo?

Matt said...

Keeping my fingers crossed, double crossed, that they bring Aaron Sorkin in to write the Steve Jobs movie.

Anonymous said...

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/10/09/sorkin-on-jobs.html

From Sorkin at The Daily Beast.


Pam aka SisterZip

Patti Morfeld Kublawi RN BSN said...

We absolutely loved this and we are not even baseball nuts...I thought the writing was crisp and I though brad Pitt gave a very understated performance-thanks for chatting about the book, my hubby picked it up right after the movie

Anonymous said...

that should be

sorkin-on-jobs

sorry!

Pam

Ben Godar said...

Right-on, Ken. I've seen others complain that ignoring the rotation shows the A's didn't win through their system at all... as if "Moneyball" means you only field a team of fat guys and Chad Bradfords. The A's valuations and the consensus valuation still mostly overlap. What's interesting - and therefore the focus of the book and movie - are those guys the A's saw value in that others did not.

Mike Barer said...

Was Grady, the scout a real name for a real person? My guess is that it's a ficticious name for an amalgamation of different scouts. He came off looking like a total jerk.
I loved both the movie and the book by the way.

PN said...

Great review, but a minor quibble. Beane became GM of the A's in 1998, by which time Oakland had already drafted Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Zito arrived in 1999, so you could give credit to BB for his presence, but Beane inherited the other two.

Agree with your overall point, though - nice to hear someone who isn't a stathead give Beane credit for developing a talented team.

LAprGuy said...

23-year-old Fernando Valenzuela had only thrown 800+ career innings at the time of the trade -- why would they think they'd still need Sid Fernandez?

Jim said...

My favorite example of playing with reality in "Moneyball" is Billy Beane's daughter, in a scene taking place in December 2001, picking up a guitar in a music store and singing the song "The Show."

"The Show" is originally by an Australian singer named Lenka, and was first released on her self-titled solo debut album -- in September 2008.

-bee said...

I kind of love baseball and so I have a hard time knowing if this film would be as enjoyable to people who don't but...

I find it kind of amusing how much baseball chatter there is in discussions of this movie when, at its heart, its not (like you said) about baseball.

IMHO it is about how prejudice clouds judgement and can lead to institutionalized error.

In this case, the success of using stats to help pick players exposes a deep vein of prejudice in how choosing players was going on.

The beauty of the narrative is that the man using the stats HIMSELF got into baseball because scouts completely misjudged him because he represented the poster-boy image of a baseball hero they had in their heads.

Its a great part for Pitt because his pretty-boy looks often cause people to under-value what a good actor he is.

So that is the gist of the movie and if reality (like the A's great pitching staff)can't be folded into the ultimate point, they have to go.

Loosehead said...

So Ken, whats your feeling in general about Hollywood rewriting history? Smoothing out a baseball story when everybody who cares still remembers the actual facts is probably low end. Rewriting important history is a different thing altogether, no matter how good the writing. Discuss.
(I guess us Brits get our knickers in a twist more than most, especially about WW2.)

Sue said...

@Mike Barer, Grady is Grady Fuson who was with the Padres as VP of Scouting from 05-09.

Great review Ken. I was wondering when we would get your thoughts. I loved this movie. 2 hours went by too fast. Brad Pitt almost said more when there was no dialogue. That's acting. Also great point, and one that annoys me in reviews of movies based on true stories, that this is a fictionalization not a documentary.

Anonymous said...

@Jay,

That is future Hall of Fame broadcaster for both the Oakland Athletics and Raiders Bill King. A pretty crazy guy.

l.a.guy said...

I remember 2002 vividly because my beloved Angels won the World Series that year.

One remarkable tidbit about the A's winning streak-- while Oakland was winning 20 games in a row the Angels went 18-2 over that same stretch. The other thing I remember is that the Angels got off to a horrible start that year, they were 6-14 after a blow out loss to the Mariners and then went 93-49 (.654%) the rest of the way.

David said...

Interesting that you cite the movie's omission of how important its star pitchers were, Tejada, etc., while you don't say a thing about Jonah Hill. The back-and-forth between Beane and Hill's character, "Peter Brand" -- an amalgam of Paul DePodesta and other Beane deputies -- were one of the movie's high points for me, and it was a pleasure to see Hill tone down his usual antics and create a lot of chemistry with Pitt in a mostly serious role.

HogsAteMySister said...

As long as the Rangers are playing Moneyball, I will be happy.

David said...

Ken, while I, too, adore Aaron Sorkin, it's tough to see people give him *lots* of credit here after reading this 2008 Steve Zaillian draft, which you can see is, like, 85-90% of the current movie:
http://pursuethepassion.jobing.com/ebook/MoneyballScript.pdf

Ike Iszany said...

This movie distorted the facts to fit its own narrative worse than Fox News. The idea is that the A's managed to replace free agent loses with veterans who walked a lot was pretty much disproven...by the Oakland A's themselves with GM Billy Beane. 2001 the A's win the division with the 3rd best OBP. 2002 they win the division with the 5th best OBP. In 2003 they win the division with the 10th best OBP. By 2003 they weren't even above average at getting on base but still won 99 games. Why? Because they had the best pitching in the league those three years. The movie mourns the loss of Johnny Damon who was there one year and was very mediocre. His numbers where not hard to replace. It mourns the loss of Jason Isringhausen but never mentions Billy Koch in 2002 and Keith Foulke in 2003 had much better years than Isringhausen had in 2001. The only thing they couldn't replace was Jason Giambi. Of course if Beane had held onto Carlos Pena he would at least have had a viable replacement who by the way, later in his career...would walk a lot. This movie was a snoozer. If they were going to distort the facts as much as they did they should have had the A's win a World Series.

Ike Iszany said...

And seriously...Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe??? Howe's waistline was the biggest distortion in this movie. Howe always looked like a drill sergeant. He was gaunt and muscular looking. Matt Frewer maybe.

Tim W. said...

The last time I watched a baseball game was when the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series, and I know absolutely nothing about what happened a that time, but this is, so far, my favourite movie of the year. I thought it hit every note and entertained me like I wanted. Can't ask for anything more than that.

Frank Abe said...

@ David

Thanks for the link to the Zaillian draft. I look forward to studying it. But I read the first 20 pages and aside from opening in the empty stadium, it doesn't seem to be anything like the movie. All the dialogue was rewritten, that I can see. But thanks.

Michael said...

Any movie that reminds us that Bill King should be in the baseball, football, and basketball halls of fame, and that his absence from the broadcasters' wings of those three institutions remains a crime, is fine with me.

By the way, speaking of King being crazy, Hank Greenwald, who worked with him on Warriors broadcasts, told the story of the night King jumped from his seat and yelled at a referee to, uh, do something biologically impossible. It went out over the air. But on a more serious note, he is the greatest football radio guy I have ever heard, and I never thought I'd hear a better radio football broadcaster than Lindsey Nelson.

Matt said...

I just want to know if Sorkin took even a nugget of the "homage" scene you wrote about "if Sorkin ever did a baseball movie."

Dave Arnott said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: Since I've been enjoying post-season baseball so much (and without "my" team in the hunt, even), I was wondering... if you know...

Where do Umpires come from?

Now that I've likely set you up, seriously... are they mostly old players, because it seems like they aren't, which kinda surprises me. Do you have any inside knowledge in this area? Thanks.

Ref said...

Dave Arnott, there's a wonderful book titled "As They See 'Em" by a fan and amateur umpire named Bruce Weber. It's a wonderful baseball book that will really change how you see umpires. Or were you joking?

Dave Arnott said...

Ref, I wasn't joking. But I was also hoping for an answer, not a homework assignment :)

I will put that book on my list, though. Thanks.

Chris said...

Aside from focusing on OBP, another way to win cheap is to have your stars juiced up to their eyebrows.

Giambi, Tejada, maybe Chavez...

More artistic license!