The Moviegoer: "Moneyball" and the Art of Reinvention

Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, Moneyball, is the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and General Manager Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) reinventing the path to success in Major League Baseball. Because of the hordes of money that teams like the New York Yankees have at their disposal to attract quality players, small market teams like Beane’s A’s have seemingly no chance of making the playoffs—let alone winning the World Series. But with the help of Yale-educated, statistical analysis guru Peter Brand (played endearingly by Jonah Hill), Beane takes a new, cost-effective approach to scouting talent whereby players are viewed as statistical averages contributing to a mathematical formula that adds up to a winning team.

Based on a non-fiction book primarily concerned with statistical analysis, Moneyball was initially considered questionable as a big screen narrative. But the film’s story arc has unexpected layers which make it especially compelling. In attempting to reinvent the formula for a winning baseball team, Beane also hopes that he can reinvent himself as a successful General Manager after a disappointing career as a promising player. Pitt convincingly portrays both the underlying wounds of a former athlete well acquainted with failure, and the attendant superficial confidence displayed through a veneer of sarcastic wit and a laid-back demeanor often betrayed with angry eruptions.

The trouble for Beane is that even if he reinvents his approach to team managing, his fulfillment remains contingent upon a success that is defined by winning the last game. While he has reinvented the means by which he is attempting to win the Series, he has yet to reinvent himself in terms of a higher order of fulfillment by which he can justify his existence outside of baseball’s wins and losses. By making the playoffs, the A’s are a success to everyone but Beane. He can’t enjoy the good that came with their 2002 season, because his life’s worth is defined most essentially by a simple formula: finish ahead of everyone else.

Some critics have referred to Moneyball as the The Social Network of baseball movies. Of course, the dissimilarities between the films are obvious: The Social Network’s aims are grander, its drama darker, its ironies pointed; by comparison, Moneyball—like a day at the ballpark—is generally a light-hearted outing. But the assertion is also understandable because of two commonalities in particular: Aaron Sorkin’s sharp screenwriting, and the theme of Ivy Leaguers applying mathematical precision to traditional conceptions of sociality.

Yet, another similarity between the films comes to mind. In their unique ways, Mark Zuckerberg and Billy Beane both define a fulfilling life in terms of personal triumph—to the point that loved ones suffer the consequences of their singular pursuit. While Zuckerberg’s relational commitments remain questionable (poor Eduardo), Beane seems on the path to redemption when he reinvents himself as a person more concerned with his daughter, Casey, than with the pursuit of personal accomplishment.

While some critics are concerned about the dehumanizing act of reducing people to numbers, the film consistently undermines this potential danger while celebrating Beane’s game-changing season. Three particular instances come to mind: the trading of troublemaker Jeremy Giambi despite the statistical advantage he might offer the team; Brand’s humorous attempt  at adjusting Beane’s perspective of what constitutes a successful season; and finally, Beane’s tearful realization that he is responsible for more than his own personal success or fulfillment. In these ways, Moneyball reminds us that reinventing one’s self is less a mathematical formula than an art form—more about creating a life constituted by beautiful purposes, and less about bottom-line winners and losers.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • Scott cunningham

    Great job Nick. I already wanted to see the movie, but your description and analysis made it more urgent within me. Thanks for the post.

  • Alan Noble

    Scott! We should see it together!

  • Nick

    Thanks, Scott! And you guys should definitely see it. It is probably in my personal top 5 of the year so far.

  • Peter

    I thought it was a fantastic movie as well. It did a great job of exploring the intersection between math and real life. Actually it might be the intersection between math and expertise. Managing a baseball team is not the same thing as running a spreadsheet. Math is a powerful tool for understanding just about anything, but it doesn’t replace the existing knowledge for any given subject.

    I did a bit of research about the real life story (no spoilers here, don’t worry). The real life person represented by Peter Brand actually went on to be a general manager of a different baseball team. He was fired a few years later and never had much success. Not to say that his methods were wrong, but math doesn’t give you instant success.

  • Nick

    Thanks for commenting, Peter. Yeah, looking into the reality of the story is interesting. Even more interesting if you consider the overall impact it has had on sports in general. The Houston Rockets and Daryl Morey come to mind, for instance. Even the Patriots and Bellachick.

    That said, it would also be interesting to look at this from a proposition v. narrative context and think about how these two often diametrically opposed elements actually intersect in fascinating ways. In other words, does “bringing math into it” necessarily have to dehumanize? Is there a logic to embodiment? I say yes.

  • KSP

    I have finally seen the movie and was not disappointed. I don’t do “sports films” and this was definitely something other–and your review fleshes out what makes it so, Nick.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Thanks, KSP.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it. If a sports related film was to your liking, then it must have been good! ;)


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