Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Moneyball’: A Real-Life Sports Fairy Tale

October 16, 2020 Updated: October 16, 2020

PG-13 | | Biography, Drama, Sport | 23 September 2011 (USA)

“Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt, is based on a true story about a paradigm shift in baseball and is a great example of how fairy tales really do exist. “Bull Durham” might still be No. 1 in baseball movies, but “Moneyball” might have to join the Top 5 baseball movies of all time.

Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, had huge potential as a ballplayer but turned out to be a dismal disappointment in the big leagues. Then he made the move to manager and found his true talent.

manager and consultant and two players in locker room in "Moneyball"
(L–R) Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) with players in the locker room, in “Moneyball.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

In 2002, the Oakland A’s had lost their star players to big-money offers from other teams, and Beane had to rebuild with a piddling budget.

In a trade meeting with another team, he intuits a source of behind-the-scenes power emanating from an underling who turns out to be a Yale-educated visionary, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill in a departure from Judd Apatow comedies; this role put him on the map permanently as a dramatic actor), and hunts him down. He grills him, senses sea-change potential, and hires him on the spot.

two men shaking hands in "Moneyball"
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, L), the A’s team manager, and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale-educated economist, work together in reforging the A’s success, in the drama “Moneyball.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/ Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

Espousing statistician (and baseball writer) Bill James’s long-ignored “sabermetrics” theories, Brand uses statistical analysis to do two things for the Oakland A’s: 1) find budget-friendly players, and 2) assemble a motley crew of overlooked and undervalued players who’ve each got a very specific and very special talent that goes unnoticed for various reasons.

man seated and man at whiteboard in "Moneyball"
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, L) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), in “Moneyball.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

The resulting Oakland A’s team, at first considered a laughing stock, goes on to do great things in “The Show” (Major League Baseball), tying long-standing records by the world’s best-ever teams and generally standing the world of baseball on its head.

The movie is hilarious. The humor consists of uniformly understated and impeccably timed deadpan throwaways that—much like the ballplayers’ talents—come in under the radar like smart bombs and leave the audience roaring.

man in oakland A's hat on phone in "Moneyball"
Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale-educated economist, clinching a player deal, in “Moneyball.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/ Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

The Actual Fairy Tale

But the main appeal of “Moneyball” is that it’s an archetypal story. There are many classic fairy tales that tell this particular story, the best example being “The Flying Ship” (a story from Andrew Lang’s “The Yellow Fairy Book”).

Once upon a time, a young man sets out to seek his fortune. On his journey, he assembles a motley crew of misfits to help him find that fortune. He finds, for example, a man with his ear to the ground who can hear everything going on in the world. He recruits him. He says to another one: “Hello! What are you doing, hopping around on one leg?” The man replies: “I can’t help it. I walk so fast that unless I tied up one leg I should be at the end of the earth in a bound.”

And so it goes. Each man has a particular supernormal skill that turns out to be perfectly matched to overcoming a particular problem. This is exactly how that Oakland A’s team did the unthinkable.

Oakland A's manager and team in locker room in "Moneyball"
Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the A’s coach, in “Moneyball.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

In terms of fairy tales, it’s always great to see that it’s never just kid stuff. These things really exist, and “Moneyball” is right on the money.

That said, “Moneyball” is the complete opposite of Clint Eastwood’s “Trouble With the Curve,” which touts the traditional approach to scouting baseball players. This newfangled relying on math formulas and analytics, rather than human abilities, takes some of the fun out of it. Not for team owners looking for wins, of course, but to see the profession of the scout fading away (and slightly ridiculed, in “Moneyball”). Because then it’s all about the win.

Baseball should be one of those things that remain about the journey: the human touch, wooden bats, the smell of a new-mown lawn, stadium lights glowing in the dusk, fireflies, hotdogs, Cracker Jacks, and everyone involved in the whole production highly invested and enjoying their jobs. Sure, a robot can assemble a Harley-Davidson quicker. But we should get back to caring less about wins and money… ball….

man sitting in bleachers on a movie poster for "Moneyball"
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) on the movie poster for “Moneyball.” (Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

‘Moneyball’
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt
Run Time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 23, 2011
Rating: PG-13
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch