Almost every sports movie has a montage scene. In "Major League," the Cleveland Indians bag wins to move out of the bottom of the standings. In "The Natural," Roy Hobbs hits homer after homer for the New York Knights. In "Moneyball," which opens nationally Friday, Scott Hatteberg and his fellow A's draw walks.
But besides the requisite montage, "Moneyball," starring Brad Pitt as Oakland general manager Billy Beane, is far from a typical film about sports. Based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, it displays wit and creativity to tell a story that some doubted would make for a good movie.
Lewis' book debunked many old wives' tales in conventional baseball wisdom and told of how Beane and the A's exploited the folklore to remain competitive despite a relatively small payroll. It remains among the most misunderstood books since 2000, but Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the film's writers, did not have trouble parsing its Bill James-inspired meaning.
The film version of "Moneyball" doesn't get into nearly as much detail as the book, which came out in 2003, but it does hit on the basics: How players get on base doesn't matter nearly as much as their ability to get on base. Also, raw athletic skill, body type and an attractive girlfriend don't provide enough information to predict if a prospect is a future Major Leaguer.
To make these points, the film, directed by Bennett Miller, follows Beane and the A's throughout the 2002 season. If the movie is to be believed, Beane and Peter Brand (a Paul DePodesta-inspired assistant GM played by Jonah Hill) radically changed their strategy following a 2001 loss to the Yankees in the playoffs. As many baseball fans know, the A's had been laying the groundwork for years, but that's besides the film's point.
The best sports movies -- or rather movies about sports -- aren't about what happens in the actual competition. "Chariots of Fire" runs much deeper than its racing scenes, and "Moneyball" won't be remembered for chronicling Oakland's win streak.
Instead, it will be remembered for Pitt's portrayal of Beane as he deals with the old-boys' club of baseball that includes talent evaluators, other GMs and the players themselves. He sits in a room full of scouts and tells them they're all looking for the wrong things. Later, in the A's clubhouse, he makes use of a bat, but not to hit a baseball. In between, he discusses the best way to tell a player he's been traded or released. He knows there is no easy way, and that's why he teaches Brand how to do it. He works out during the games because he can't handle watching them.
Short on melodramatic on-field scenes and other clichés, "Moneyball" succeeds because of snappy dialogue and Pitt's strong performance. Cynics and sticklers may poke holes in the distorted timeline, but that doesn't matter that much when the movie is about so much more than who got traded when. Sorkin, who translated the story of Facebook in "The Social Network," doesn't disappoint with his script. Pitt is understated but believable as Beane.
"Moneyball" also stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who worked with Miller on "Capote") as Art Howe and Chris Pratt (of "Parks and Recreation" fame) as Hatteberg. The Howe character isn't developed, but the scenes with Pratt are some of the film's best. Former Major Leaguer Royce Clayton even tries his hand at acting by portraying shortstop Miguel Tejada.
As with almost any movie based on a book, the question arises: Which is better? The answer: They're different. The book should have been required reading for any baseball fan years ago, and the movie provides appeal to fans of both the game and of cinema. One is not a substitute for the other, but the movie is just as worth seeing as the book was worth reading.
Thomas Boorstein is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.