If there’s anything more conceivably wonky than watching an awkward braniac from Harvard extolling the virtues of social networking, it would be watching an awkward braniac from Yale going on about the most valuable metrics and statistical analysis of baseball. Yet, just as he made last year’s surprisingly riveting The Social Network into a treatise about the nature of creation and loneliness, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has found a way to adapt Michael Lewis’s nonfiction best seller about Oakland A’s GM Bill Beane’s successful adaptation of sabermetrics into the baseball hierarchy and turn it into a rumination on the personal cost of being a heretic and the nature of loyalty.
Beane (Brad Pitt) is a former big-leaguer himself, one whose almost limitless promise as a near-mythical “five tool” player as a high schooler never came to fruition. Washing out as a player, he starts as a scout and works his way into the GM spot in Oakland, where due to baseball’s ludicrous cash disparity, he’s constantly competing against a monolith (does one even have to name the Yankees?) whose payroll is roughly three times higher than his own. With no other answer available to him, Beane takes an interest in a young assistant in Cleveland, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale grad with a degree in economics, who touts the virtues of statistician Bill James’ advanced baseball metrics — which place an emphasis less on the existing holy grail of traditional baseball scouting, hitting, fielding and pitching — and more on the nuts and bolts of what actually wins games in the majors. With his new young assistant in tow, Beane works to remake his roster, replacing departed stars like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, with little known or respected players who just so happen to be very, very good at one essential run producing skill: They can get on base.
Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with many in Beane’s existing, old school scouting staff, whose methodology includes sitting around a big table and lavishing obscure and nearly meaningless praise (“he passes the eye-candy test,” “he’s got a lot of pop off the bat”) on young kids whose futures, Beane points out to them, they don’t really have the foggiest clue about. It also doesn’t sit well with the institution of baseball, which for all its history and pomp, approaches fundamental change about as adroitly as an Edsel negotiated a sharp left turn.
The problem with baseball fanatics, and the baseball movie genre as a whole, is the temptation to ascribe too much meaning in what is essentially a simple kid’s game. You might start with bats and bases, but before you know it, you have giant, ungainly metaphors straining to reach everything from father/son familial realtionships to visions of our own mortality. Fortunately, Sorkin and director Bennett Miller steer the film away from such razzmatazz, choosing instead to ground the story in a little less high-concept drama. As Pitt plays him, Beane is a willful maverick, haunted by his own misdiagnoses at the hands of over-eager scouts, and wanting to leave an indelible mark on the game he’s devoted his life to. The result is a companion piece to The Social Network, with baseball used more as a backdrop to the real issues at hand. In short, it’s a film that just about anyone can find solace in, not just baseball wonks: It’s less The Natural and more Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and all the more engaging for it.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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