Moneyball

By Jason Wojciechowski on September 26, 2011 at 4:20 PM

This isn't a review of the film Moneyball. If you want to read a mediocre review by someone who doesn't seem to know a thing about baseball, try Roger Ebert. If you want to read a review by someone who doesn't seem to know a thing about film, try basically any baseball blog out there. I could repeat what my wife told me about the poor direction of the group-table scenes, I could expound aimlessly on the acting job done by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, or I could talk about how people think Moneyball was Sorkinian mainly because his name was on it, not for any actual artistic Sorkin-like touches, but that's, as I said, not my goal here. I have one core problem with the way the Moneyball story was told that I want to address with what I hope is more care than has been taken in certain other places.

That problem is, as you might have guessed, the "artistic license" the filmmakers elected to take. I've noticed at least one person on the internet (I can't remember who, unfortunately) argue that people like me, who are bothered by the factual inaccuracies of the film, "wanted Moneyball to be a documentary." I won't speak for anyone else, but I don't appreciate that remark. (Fight.) There's a difference between whining over details for the sake of it and thinking that a film should remain true to the basic facts of the real situation if it's going to pretend to be about that real situation. This wasn't a movie about Will Legume, general manager of the San Jose Lions, and his battles with Anthony Whye, his irascible on-field manager who prefers to play Carles Posa at first base instead of Shawn Hankerson, the ex-catcher with no arm the front-office believes in.

No, this was about Billy Beane, Art Howe, Carlos Pena, Scott Hatteberg, and everyone else on the A's, except for Paul DePodesta. When DePodesta decided to not permit his name to be used in the film (as I understand it), the writers changed the Jonah Hill character to "Peter Brand." Despite the fact that Brand and DePodesta have some significant similarities (came up through the Indians organization before coming to the A's, Ivy League economics graduate), important liberties were taken: Jonah Hill obviously is not playing someone who played college baseball, as DePodesta did (at Harvard, sure, but still), and no mention is made of Brand having any scouting experience (DePodesta worked as an advance scout with the Indians). Essentially, the filmmakers amped up the nerd factor by casting Hill and writing him as a smart code-monkey with a passion for changing the game rather than a smart code-monkey with a passion for changing the game and a well-rounded baseball background. Everyone who follows baseball knows who Brand is modeled after, but a name-change signals something important to the audience -- that this isn't fully the real-life person, that liberties have been taken, that the character may even be a composite of a variety of people, simplified down for the sake of a two-hour movie.

By contrast, turning Art Howe into someone who refuses to even engage in a discussion with Billy Beane about who should play first base, drawing a hard line in the sand between the front office and the dugout for the sake of illustrating the misguided thinking of old-school baseball managers who believe that the GM merely serves to create a team on which they will do the yeoman's work of guiding to victory strikes me as unfair to Howe, a real-life person. (A real-life person who, notably, has complained about his depiction in the film.) Grady Fuson gets similar treatment, though apparently the real Grady Fuson is more philosophical about his portrayal, understanding that the movie needed villains and that his character was a natural choice.

Drama arises from conflict, and movies have long operated on the belief, probably correct, that the most compelling conflict is between people. Moneyball is a story about a team that takes itself out of step with the established notions of an industry in order to level a tilted playing field. The personal conflict in that story is not obvious. It was natural, then, that the movie might decide to embody that fight for relevance on the part of the A's in intra-organization warfare between the agents of change (Beane, "Brand") and the old guard (Howe, Fuson). This conflict-invention, however, should have come paired with character-invention.

The rest of the factual changes the filmmakers made, some attributable to the book (did the A's even have pitchers?), some not (Sandy Alderson's role in teaching Beane about sabermetrics is deleted), don't matter to me nearly as much as the basic issue above. The movie wasn't a documentary, and it wasn't six hours long, so I'm more or less fine with eliding the true source of Beane's feelings about baseball statistics. It's not that big a deal that Chad Bradford and Jeremy Giambi were already on the A's going in to 2002, rather than being free agents or minor leaguers, as the film implied -- in the end, the A's did liberate both guys from teams that may not have fully appreciated their talents, and that those liberations occurred a few years earlier isn't terribly material to the idea that Beane and the A's were going after players that other teams undervalued because of weird pitching motions or bad bodies/attitudes.

(Postscript: what on earth did Keith Law see in the Carlos Pena character? He was on the screen for all of a minute and just there to serve as a point of personal growth for Brand, who learns by doing that when you trade a player, you tell them that straight-out and they'll deal with it fine. He was hardly portrayed as "a sullen Latino player" -- honestly, how does race even factor in here?)

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