SPOILER ALERT: I tell what really happened, not just what happened in the movie.
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!
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.
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.