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Moneyball (2011)

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Directed by Bennett Miller, and written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball is based on the Michael Lewis’ book of the same name (2003). Both tell the true story of Billy Beane, the general manager of Oakland Athletics baseball team, and played here by Brad Pitt (munching his way through the film like he’s back in Ocean’s Eleven). In 2002 he had the supposedly impossible task of making the team competitive on a shoestring budget after having had their best players pinched by their richer competition.

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As with many sports, the analysis of players in baseball was largely archaic, and focussed on scout opinion and little else. When some teams have over five times the budget available for wages and fees, Beane needed a way to close the gap. It wouldn’t be as simple as replacing players like for like. Even if there were players available good enough to directly replace the impact made by those he lost, then he would never be able to afford them. Its then that he met his future assistant, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill - interestingly the real name of Beane's assistant was Paul DePodesta, who asked that his name was changed in the film). The two of them used a statistical approach to player appointment, unearthing huge anomalies in scouting and decision making within the game. When appointing players, they ignored age, looks, what they did in their free time, and whether they walked or threw funny so long as their stats all added up to a successful team. It’s your classic underdog sports story, but with an interesting insight in to how they actually flipped the sport on its head.

I really enjoyed the dialogue and slow pace to Moneyball. It takes it’s time to tell its story, but if you don’t think you would enjoy two hours of people talking trying to sex up maths and sports then it does make this a hard sell. Saying that, alongside what I think is an incredible real life sporting story is that of a man struggling with the personal demons of past failures and a broken family. Brad Pitt’s superb in this, and fully deserved the Academy Award nomination he received that year. Although he’s easy to get behind, he does have flaws and I found myself sympathising with those he manages to antagonise. He rubs the noses of his respected scouting and coaching team in the blind optimism of his new transfer policy, and is point blank rude to his ex-wife’s new husband. Put simply though, he’s human, he’s relatable, and most importantly: believable. That’s why I find myself getting behind him every time I watch this film. I’m always fascinated by the psychology of sporting greats, and for Beane winning is never enough. There’s always one step further that he’s missed out on, and something to go for next time. It’s frustrating when those closest to him want him to revel in what he has achieved, but that is what drive people like him and I found that so absorbing about his character.

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It’s a brilliantly directed film (something that will come of no surprise to anyone that has seen Bennett Miller’s Capote from 2005, or Foxcatcher from 2014), and the score is unobtrusive and subtly brilliant. When the electric guitar does dare to build you can’t help but be carried away with it. That guitar had a really similar feel to the score of Friday Night Lights actually, one of my favourite ever TV shows (and another underdog sports story). Pitt is surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast too. Needless to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman is entirely believable as the team’s coach, and I was really impressed with Ken Matlock as the head scout, a former player himself and technical advisor for the film. Chris Pratt’s solid, but the film’s other star is Jonah Hill in his first ‘serious’ role. Also receiving the first of his Academy Award nominations that year (first of many for him), Hill plays against type and is extremely reserved and awkward throughout. He’s a number cruncher, and is the man to offer Beane the analytical answers in his attempt to level the playing field. His struggle in handling stressful social interactions such as player transfer negotiations and firing current players are hilarious, and offer a good release to much of the tense and confrontational dialogue.

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I was inspired to watch this film (again) after listening to Episode 3 of the Revisionist History podcast, ‘The Big Man Can’t Shoot.’ In it, Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly tells the fascinating story of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. A superstar during his time, Chamberlain’s one fault is that he was awful at shooting from a foul throw situation (I thought of it a bit like a football penalty for anyone else whose basketball knowledge isn’t all that). Although all the stats show that throwing this shot underarm rather than overarm gives players a much greater chance of scoring, no professionals do. To do so would be a “Granny Shot,” or to shoot “like a sissy.” Chamberlain openly admitted that he would have scored hundreds more points in his career, and won more matches in the process had he changed how he made this shot. The podcast asks why every player ignores the stats, and the type of personality required to stand up and do something differently. Beane and DePodesta did just that, and the film that tells the story is a fascinating and inspiring watch.

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