It’s awards season. Here at SBM, we’ll take a writer’s look at some of screenplays nominated at this year’s Academy Awards.
Moneyball is a film working in very classic dramatic principals. It adores contrasts, pairing the physically blessed with the intellectually revolutionary, pitting the old and dysfunctional against the new and vital. The contrasts of the film are apparent even in the billing. Right beneath the All-American genetic specimen that is Brad Pitt, we have Jonah Hill, who I will spare any less than flattering adjectives. Moneyball constantly pits these contrasting types against one another because it knows that in these simple dyads rest inherent conflict.
Moneyball begins with the bold Billy Beane, General Manager of the low payroll Oakland As, meeting up with the reserved but brilliant Peter Brand, a Yale Graduate and statistician. Beane, a former top baseball prospect who never lived up to his potential, finds himself at odds with archaic scouting philosophies. After another season ending in disappointment to the New York Yankees, Beane listens, exasperated, as his scouts repeat the same old cliches about upcoming prospects, the very same cliches so many attached to him when he was a much desired young man who eschewed college to play full time when MLB came calling.
In a pivotal scene, Beane asks Brandt if Brandt would have drafted him in the first round. After some prodding, Brandt admits that he wouldn’t have, and Beane hires him immediately. In so many ways, Beane is rebelling against a system that failed him, that promised him the world and left him a failure. When Beane sits in a room who have been in the scouting game for decades, he hears all the same superlatives teams attached to him. While the scouts drone on about looks and attitudes and other intangibles, Brandt offers data, numbers, and cost efficiency. Together, Beane and Brandt are a pair of young bucks with rationality and math on their side going up against the archaic and outdated establishment. They take players with nontraditional throwing motions, they switch player’s positions, and turn the unappreciated into stars, all while saving precious dollars.
Moneyball reaches a great culmination of the ideologies at war. The old way of superstition and irrationality clashes with the new way of statistical analysis and evaluation. For the duration of the film, Bean, for all his bluster, clutches to a single superstition: he refuses to watch his team’s games live. When his team stands to set a record for consecutive wins, he can’t resist. He races to the stadium, just in time to witness what seems a historic collapse in which the team gives up an astonishing 11 run lead. In Bean’s face, we see the anticipation of a jinx and curse rearing its ugly head. Then, Scott Hatteberg, he of the risky position switch, and the player most emblematic of the new management style conceived by Bean and Brandt, comes to bat at the bottom of the ninth, and hits a homerun as triumphant as any in film history.
In the end, Moneyball offers one final irony when Beane turns down the opportunity to manage the Boston Red Sox in order to stay in California to be nearer to his daughter. The prophet of supreme rationality surrenders to sentimentality. In the post-script, Moneyball goes on to claim that the Red Sox would end a decades long championship drought due to the philosophies and practices established by Beane and Brandt. Now I don’t follow baseball with any sort of scrutiny, but the notion that the Boston Red Sox, one of the absolute wealthiest franchises in MLB with a payroll to match, finally won a World Series due to philosophies predicated to maximizing a minimal budget somewhat paradoxical. But that’s the game all adaptations must play: do we prefer truth, or a great story?