Monday, March 5, 2012

Moneyball - Film Study

Another great "baseball movie" has been nominated for an Academy Award, but just like the "curse of the Bambino", Moneyball will not win Best Picture. The Academy has a hard time giving the award for Best Picture to a sports film, no matter how good (The Natural, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Pride of the Yankees).

The two keys to the Greatness of Moneyball are:

Editing - the film is edited with great attention to rhythm and pacing by Christopher Tellefsen, A.C.E.

Casting - the movie would not have been as meaningful or authentic without Brad Pitt or Johah Hill. Their onscreen chemistry and ownership of the roles they play make this "sports film" more of a "buddy picture".

The themes of Moneyball are:
  • Passion
  • Brains triumph over Brawn
  • Renewal of Self Worth
  • Class Warfare
The lesson in Moneyball is:

It's not about winning, but about getting on base.


The following is an excerpt of a review by Dan Heaton (

Adapting Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game for the screen has always seemed like a strange proposition. The 2003 non-fiction book takes a fairly clinical approach to the inventive statistical methods used by Billy Beane as general manager of the Oakland A’s during the 2002 season. It also presents the history of this much-different method for evaluating talent in major league baseball.

This seems like fodder for a great documentary, but awkward material for a dramatic story. How could a movie present this dense material and interest general audiences? Steven Soderbergh was originally attached to the production, but left over creative differences. Bennett Miller (Capote) ended up directing the film, and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Stephen Zallian (Schindler’s List) wrote the script. With this kind of pedigree involved, the movie version of Moneyball has just the right creative minds needed to bypass those obstacles. Sorkin in particular has shown an ability to translate complex material into a relatable product, so his participation is crucial to its success.

Brad Pitt stars as Beane, who’s recovering from losing his top three players to the big-spending teams. Oakland has a minimal payroll and can’t compete on the free-agent market with the wealthy clubs. Looking for a new way to scout players, he recruits numbers guru Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to devise a new evaluation system. The old-time scouts are skeptical and believe you can’t quantify baseball success, but Beane has personal reasons to think otherwise. His frustrations from decisions he made as a top baseball prospect still haunt him today.

This personal side of the story is the master stroke in Sorkin and Zallian’s screenplay, which shifts the focus to Beane. Instead of providing intricate details on Sabermetrics, they make it a redemptive personal story. Like Mark Zuckerberg, Beane is sticking his neck out and will ride out the string, regardless of the consequences. His approach is much different than the Facebook founder, but their inventive tactics are relatable. Miller’s direction makes the point about Beane’s past without overplaying the connection. Pitt also shines by making his skepticism of the scouts clear in subtle fashion. They craft a mainstream crowd pleaser without catering to the lowest common denominator.

Moneyball is a film about baseball and should please fans interested in the stats, but it never delves too far into the approach. Brand explains the system and touts a few players they should grab, and that’s enough information. Jonah Hill received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for this role as the brains behind the operation. It’s a pretty standard performance that might not deserve this much recognition, but he still does an excellent job.

Pitt and Hill work together really well and find ways to inject a lot of humor into even some mundane moments. When they pull off a complex trade with a series of phone calls, their glee is infectious because we’re on board with the actors. Pitt has rarely looked so effortless on screen and deserves all the recognition. It’s one of his best roles because he doesn’t turn Beane into a saint. He’s a neurotic, superstitious guy who refuses to watch the game and avoids interacting with players. This isn’t the type of role you’d expect Pitt to play, but it works because of his understated approach.

The story focuses on the 2002 season, which begins terribly for the A’s and raises major questions about Beane’s sanity. Manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) isn’t on board with the system and places road blocks at every turn. New players like Jeremy Giambi reveal serious negatives that likely prove the scouts’ assessments about them. It takes some serious commitment for Beane to keep his faith in Sabermetrics.

Knowledgeable viewers today know the end to this story, but there’s still a good deal of tension surrounding the early failures. Hoffman doesn’t get much to do beyond antagonizing Beane, but he sells the role of the grizzled veteran manager. He senses the ship is sinking and is acting for his own personal interests. It’s pretty much a thankless performance for the veteran, but he doesn’t phone in the role. This is Pitt’s movie and Beane is driving the story, so Howe just plays a small part in the main plot. There are recognizable players like David Justice and Scott Hatteberg involved, and the actors playing them are believable. However, these guys are more representative of the types of players valued in this system, not completely original characters?

Here is an interview with Editor, Christopher Tellefsen on Moneyball:

Editor Christopher Tellefsen on Moneyball

Faced with an almost ludicrous salary differential between the Oakland Athletics (which had $41 million to spend on players in 2002) and large-market teams like the New York Yankees (which threw around $125 million in the same season), Oakland's General Manager Billy Beane looked to the numbers to help give his team an edge. The best-selling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game examined Beane's efforts, which ended up changing the way many baseball clubs look at the game.

It wasn't clear how, exactly, anyone would film a book that takes baseball statistics — this brand of analysis is known as sabermetrics — as a primary subject, but with Brad Pitt attached to play Beane, it seemed destined to hit the big screen one way or another. First David Frankel and later Steven Soderbergh were scheduled to direct, but Sony squelched the Soderbergh project before the cameras could roll. Pitt hung onto the project until director Bennett Miller came on board, bringing with him film editor Christopher Tellefsen, A.C.E., with whom Miller had worked on Capote. Miller and Tellefsen got to work identifying the human elements that would add emotional complexity and urgency to a story  that was, truly, "inside baseball."

You could call the results a home run — Moneyball was a box-office success and earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing, plus plaudits for actors Pitt and Jonah Hill, who plays assistant GM Peter Brand, the young gun who helped Beane leverage the mathematical concepts underlying the game. We spoke to Tellefsen about editing on the Avid, intercutting performances by actors and non-actors, and coal-mining in the cutting room.

Here is an essay on the casting process for Moneyball by Emmanel Levy (

Moneyball: Casting for Authenticity

In casting the players on the 2002 Oakland Athletics, Bennett Miller put the focus on his desire to capture stark, naturalistic baseball action.  So he looked for the real thing, casting primarily experienced ball players who could act. Early on, the filmmakers enlisted Michael Fisher, whose credits include The Blind Side and Remember the Titans, to serve as the film’s baseball coordinator, who set out to assemble, train and choreograph a cast who could authentically recreate the A’s ballgames down to the details.
Unlike the star-studded team of 2001, the 2002 A’s were a grittier bunch, but that led to a kind of unity that played a part in their record-shattering winning steak.  “There was definitely a spirit to the 2002 team,” observes Billy Beane.  “It was amazing how quickly they bonded, because they’d heard that they were going to come in last place or never make it to the playoffs.  Guys like Scott Hatteberg and David Justice came together quickly and I think they had a little bit of a chip because they were tired of hearing about how all the star players had left for the big markets and it did provide a bit of an incentive and created the esprit d’corps that we had.”

The filmmakers looked for that same spirit in the casting.  “The casting process was pretty extensive,” recalls Fisher.  “Close to 750 guys tried out for the movie. We knew the best way to make it as authentic as possible, would be to get the best guys out there.”  Most of those cast previously played in the minor leagues, and two – Royce Clayton (who plays Miguel Tejada) and Derrin Ebert (Mike Magnante) – are former Major League Baseball players, with Clayton’s career having culminated in a World Series championship ring for his time as a shortstop with the Boston Red Sox.

They include:

  • Chris Pratt /Scott Hatteberg, First Base, #10.  Pratt, best known for his co-starring role as Andy Dwyer on the hit NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” plays the injured catcher who becomes Billy’s Beane’s seemingly craziest acquisition – and strongest confirmation of his theories.  Not only does Beane surprise Scott Hatteberg with an offer to join the A’s, he stuns him with a bizarre request:  to play first base – a position he’s never played before.   Pratt came to the production as the only player on the team without any real baseball experience and trained extensively, just as Hatteberg had to do.  “Billy and Peter see the potential that nobody else sees,” says Michael De Luca.  “Chris is such a wonderfully humanistic actor, bringing both drama and humor – he makes you root for him and for the moneyball theory.”

  • Stephen Bishop/David Justice, Left Field, #23.  Bishop is a film and television actor (“Friday Night Lights”) and a former minor league player in the Atlanta Braves farm system.  While in the minors he formed a friendship with the man he plays in the film:  former All-Star David Justice.  “Justice,” Bishop says, “told me he couldn’t think of anybody he’d rather play the part than me.  That gave me a lot of confidence and I hope I do him justice.”

  • Casey Bond/Chad Bradford, Pitcher, #53.  Bond, a former college pitcher and outfielder, plays the A’s idiosyncratic relief pitcher who throws in a submariner, knuckle-scraping style.  Bond, who was drafted into the minor leagues as a centerfielder for the San Francisco Giants, quit the game to become an actor, having landed a national commercial in Nashville, and subsequently moved to Los Angeles.  Based on his resemblance to Chad Bradford and his ability to pitch with Bradford’s unique underhand style, he was cast in the role.

  • Royce Clayton/Miguel Tejada, Shortstop, #4.  Clayton is a former 1997 All-Star shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals who earned a World Series ring for the champion Boston Red Sox in 2007.  He plays six-time All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was the Oakland A’s MVP in their historic 2002 season, and who Clayton played against numerous times in the majors.

  • Nick Porrazzo/Jeremy Giambi, First Base, #16.  Porrazzo, who plays shortstop with the California Winter League, portrays first baseman Jeremy Giambi, the younger brother of the much better known, five-time All-Star Jason Giambi. 

  • Derrin Ebert/Mike Magnante, Pitcher, #52.  Ebert played in the minors for twelve years and was called up to the majors by the Atlanta Braves during their 1999 season. In his first acting role, he plays Magnante, the left-handed relief pitcher who in 2002 played his final year of Major League Baseball for the Oakland A’s before being replaced by Ricardo Rincon.

  • Marvin Horn/Terrence Long, Center Field, #12.  Horn, a former minor league player drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1994, plays Terrence Long, an outfielder for the A’s during their 2000-2003 seasons, who played his last game in the majors for the Yankees in 2006.

  • Art Ortiz/Eric Chavez, Third Base, #3.  Ortiz, an up-and-coming actor who played baseball in college and spent some time in the minors, plays the third baseman, an American League six-time Rawlings Gold Glove recipient.

  • Brent Dohling/Mark Ellis, Second Base #14.  Dohling, a former college player and now baseball coach in Irvine, California, plays Ellis, the  second baseman who made his major league debut with the A’s in 2002.

  • Miguel Mendoza/Ricardo Rincon, Pitcher, #73.  Mendoza, a former Chico State college player, plays Rincon, who came on board the A’s as a surprise trade and spent three years (2002-2005) of his 10-year career as a relief pitcher with the team. 

The filmmakers also cast several pro baseball scouts to join the veteran character actors who make up the A’s scouting department, including former player and manager Ken Medlock (who plays director of scouting Grady Fuson), legendary scout Phil Pote, Los Angeles Dodgers scout Artie Harris and baseball coaches and managers George Vranau and Barry Moss.  Actors Glenn Morshower, Jack McGee, Nick Searcy, Vyto Ruginis, Bob Bishop, and Chris Lee round out the other scouts.

Beane appreciated that the filmmakers aimed for authenticity.  “They put a lot of detail into hiring guys who had a real background in playing, who look like athletes,” he says.  “I thought Chris Pratt who plays Scott Hatteberg was fantastic. I was moved by how he had some of the same mannerisms, how he even walked a little bowlegged like Scott, and he did a great job of recreating his whole demeanor.  Every time he did something, I’d say ‘Well, that’s what Scott used to do.’  It’s a very difficult thing to pull off, but as a guy who was in the game, I was impressed.”

The Making of Moneyball:

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