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Moneyball (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

As an underdog tale of courage and risk-taking, Moneyball succeeds very well. Even more, it succeeds as an exploration of loyalty and self-interest. Being set in the “national pastime” world of baseball lends the film some popular intrigue, and being loosely based on true events lends it a measure of power (you don’t really have to know baseball to get the film, though it helps). Underdog stories have broad appeal: Most all of us feel like an underdog and appreciate the encouragement that we, too, might win after all.

Billy Beane, who is general manager (GM) of the Oakland Athletics baseball team (GMs sign players, make trades, etc.), has a big problem: The A’s have a low budget for player salaries. In other words, unlike the rich teams in baseball, they can’t buy their way to winning by acquiring the top name players. Billy happens upon Peter Brand, a fresh-from-Yale economics major working for the Cleveland Indians. Instead of big names, gut feel, and individual star player statistics (e.g., batting average), Peter values players based on a broader of range statistics and the way they fit together as a team. Billy hires Peter away from the Indians and together, against the advice and hostility of the A’s professional scouts and despite ridicule from the baseball world, they rebuild the entire A’s team with no-name and quirky players. The question is how well the team will actually do playing real baseball (based on the real-life A’s 2002 season). Running time: 133 min.

Many critics despise new entries into the familiarity and formula of a category like underdog stories, saying “we’ve seen this story before.” For me, if you boil it up to that level, there aren’t many stories to tell and, anyway, I appreciate the individual beauty of each story, even if its broad strokes are like another story’s. That said, Moneyball varies enough from the formula that critics don’t — or shouldn’t — pan it in this way. Certainly it explores common underdog questions like: When we don’t have what we are “supposed to have” to achieve great things, do we give up or do our best to find another way? Do we find resources we (and others) had overlooked? Do we have the fortitude to stick with what we believe in the face of near-universal opposition?

But in the nuance of Moneyball’s particular story, other questions explored include: In personal or professional relationships, how do we wrestle with conflict between loyalty and self-interest? What prioritizes one over the other? What if we aren’t bought into the risk that loyalty would demand we take? When it is good for us to take actions that place others in a loyalty-versus-self-interest dilemma? When faced with disloyalty, what place does our ability to exert power play in how we respond? Such are the nuances that an individual story can bring out that aren’t inherently present in the overall underdog formula.

Certainly, Moneyball is worth the time — and all the more so if you like baseball. Its filmcraft is good, particularly in its overall story arc. Some of the subplots are underdeveloped with respect to the power they want to have in the film, but we get the idea. It's not a film that demands much from us, so it might work particularly well as a take-it-easy, enjoy-it-with-a-casual-group film.

There is some language in Moneyball, but strong language is not pervasive. Aside from that, it has chewing tobacco and a throw-things-around temper tantrum.

  • Director: Bennett Miller
  • Screenplay: Steven Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin, based on the Michael Lewis book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" and with story help from Stan Chervin
  • Leads: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
  • Cinematography: Wally Pfister
  • Music: Mychael Danna

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