#ThrowbackThursday – Moneyball

Original US release date: September 23, 2011
Production budget: $50,000,000
Worldwide gross: $110,206,216

Moneyball was the second directorial outing for Bennett Miller (Capote) and was a bit of an awards season darling at the end of 2011/beginning of 2012.  The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and four Golden Globes – including Best Picture at both.  Based on the true story of general manager Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) efforts to turn the Oakland A’s into a winning franchise through unconventional methods devised by his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Moneyball was the first of a few recent high-profile films to highlight the importance and effectiveness of mathematics in our daily lives.

The film follows Beane and the Oakland A’s through their struggles after losing several of their heavy-hitter players.  Faced with the unenviable task of building up a damaged franchise, Beane comes to the realization that traditional methods just aren’t going to work.  Frankly, he simply can’t afford the big names that his advisors are suggesting he recruit.  Instead, he hires Peter Brand to help him craft a roster by using the statistics of baseball.  He hopes to increase their chances of success without having to rely on insufficient funds and wasteful top names.  Beane understands that the goal is not to hit the ball; the goal is to score runs.

Making this film was a bit of a risk.  Teasing America with the promise of a movie about baseball and then talking to them about math is sure to put some people off.  But, to be fair, there’s a lot of baseball and the math is mostly kept to quick visuals and brief soundbites.  But, at its core, Moneyball is a film about succeeding through intelligence.  And the math holds up.  The very first shot of any calculations we see is of a binomial probability distribution.  Binomial distributions deal with events that have exactly two possible outcomes.  In this instance, when a player goes up to bat, they either get on base or they don’t.  Two outcomes.  Based on their batting average, the binomial probability distribution can output the likelihood of said batter getting on base the next time they’re at bat.  Or the next three times.  Or five out of the next ten times.  Or however you wish to look at it.  It seems pretty obvious that this should have been the approach all along, doesn’t it?

But Beane and Brand are met with heavy resistance from the rest of their team.  People don’t like change.  They also don’t like math.  So, changing long-standing traditions using math doesn’t exactly go over well.  But here’s the thing: proven math (just like science) is inarguable.  Yes, there are intangibles that need to be accounted for but, essentially, math is the word of (enter your preference of word, here.  God?  Nature?).  There’s an adjustment period, but the math bears itself out.  As a result, the Oakland A’s 2002 season is probably the most talked about in the franchise’s history and actually led to their methods being adopted by other clubs with enormous success.

To tell this story, director Miller leans heavily on the duo of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.  Neither are pushed to their limits, but both are perfectly cast.  Hill is atypically subdued and likable in his role as Peter Brand.  Pitt is equally likable, albeit for different reasons.  Joining them are a young Chris Pratt and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Beane’s general manager Art Howe.  The real Art Howe was not exactly thrilled with his portrayal in the film and by all accounts, it is grossly inaccurate.  It works for the film, though, and – trust me – is pretty indicative of how most people react when someone starts talking things like math and . . . facts.

All of this blends into an effective concoction that provides the audience with both plenty of entertainment as well as information.  There are some good life lessons buried in there, as well, yet they’re never used to bludgeon the viewer over the head.  The messages are pretty clear and the end result of Beane’s efforts speak for themselves.  Geeks truly do run the world.  So, the next time you think you’re getting one over on your ol’ math professor by asking when you’re ever going to use “this stuff”, maybe you should watch Moneyball, first (The Imitation Game would be another great one, where one can see how math actually ended World War II.  They don’t tell you that is history class!), and rethink your attitude towards education.  You might learn something about filmmaking, too, while you’re at it!

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