'Moneyball': The Very Good Feel-Bad Sports Movie of the Year

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Brad Pitt's new film is melancholy and complicated—and that's what makes it great

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Sony Pictures

Last summer, Armando Galarraga, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, threw an almost perfect game. It was the top of the ninth inning in a June match-up against the Cleveland Indians, and he'd sent 26 batters back to the dugout. He needed just one more out before he could claim one of baseball's most coveted achievements. When batter 27 came to the plate, however, he hit the ball and ran to first base, where the umpire declared him safe. Galarraga's perfect game was over.

After seeing the replay, though, the umpire realized he'd made a mistake: Batter 27 should have been out, and Galarraga's game should have been perfect. But it was too late. The call had already been made. The umpire wept as he realized that his human error had cost Galarraga a place in the record books.

This game is a bit of litmus test for how people understand sports. To some, the umpire's mistake was betrayal to sports fans—a moment of grave injustice in a game that's supposed to be inherently fair. Derek Thompson wrote here at The Atlantic:

Sports combines human drama with something life flat-out does not and cannot have: finality. Life is complicated, open-ended. Sports has winners. That's why we watch, and why we care.

To others, the episode was not a freak exception to the greatness of sports. In fact, it was a beautiful example of exactly what makes games worth watching. Joe Posnanski wrote (and the New York Times' Ross Douthat quoted approvingly):

When my young daughters ask, "Why didn't he get mad and scream about how he was robbed," I think I will tell them this: I don't know for sure, but I think it's because Armando Galarraga understands something that is very hard to understand, something we all struggle with, something I hope you learn as you grow older: In the end, nobody's perfect. We just do the best we can.

These two responses illustrate two very different theories on why people are drawn to sports. One says we watch because they provide an escape from the harsh realities of the world. The other says we watch because sports reflect those harsh realities, and help prepare us for them in our own lives. It comes down to this: Do we watch sports to see the world as we want it to be, or as it truly is?

Sports movies tend to favor this first view of athletics. The genre is filled with feel-good stories featuring neat, happy endings, from Rudy to Remember the Titans. The films that explore the other side of sports—the messy, unfinished, nobody's-perfect side—are rarer, but they're there: Consider the devastating conclusion to Million Dollar Baby, or the bittersweet, did-she-mean-to-or-didn't-she dropped catch at the end of A League of Their Own.

Moneyball, the excellent film adaptation of Michael Lewis's even more excellent 2003 book, falls squarely into the second category of sports films: It's a feel-bad movie, in the best of ways. It focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, whose life has been devoid of happy endings. His own baseball career fell drastically short of its promise: He was one of the top-drafted players out of high school but couldn't hack more than a few, lackluster years in the majors. As GM of the A's, he has a fraction of the budget of a big-time team like the New York Yankees, and as a result watches his most promising players leave after a few seasons for better contracts at other teams. Beane's personal life is no sunnier. His marriage ended in divorce—though he still wears a wedding ring—and his beloved daughter lives a plane ride away with his ex-wife and her new, drippy husband.

The film doesn't wallow in its own sadness, though. The film is funny—I laughed out loud several times—even if the humor is dark. Probably the funniest scene unfolds when aging great David Justice tries to be a mentor to a younger teammate, Scott Hatteberg. Justice asks Hatteberg what he's afraid of, and Hatteberg replies, "a ball hit in my general direction." Justice laughs, assuming he's kidding: There's no way a major league baseball player could be afraid of a baseball. "No, really," Hatteberg says. Justice just looks back blankly. It's a deeply awkward moment, and it's impossible not to laugh.

Likewise, Beane has moments of triumph. He gets his scouts to adopt a new, more effective way of evaluating potential players, and the A's transform from basement-dwellers to playoff contenders. But even his victories are muted. When the A's start winning, sportscasters give credit to the team's uncooperative, vacant-eyed manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), not Beane. And—this is a spoiler for readers who don't at least casually follow professional baseball—though the A's make it to the post-season, they never win a World Series under Beane, a fact that haunts him. As he tells his assistant GM (Jonah Hill) a few times over the course of the film: "If you lose the last game of the season, no one gives a shit."

To understand just how special Moneyball's melancholy is, think back to the aggressive cheerfulness of 2009's The Blind Side, Lewis's first book to make it to the big screen. If Moneyball is one of film's most elegant illustrations of the "nobody's perfect" philosophy of sports, The Blind Side is among the most brazen partisans of the happy-ending school.

In The Blind Side—which tells the true story of the Tuohys, a rich, white Memphis family that adopts a Michael Oher, a destitute young black man, and helps him become an All-American football player—the world is very much as it should be. Family is celebrated and hard work is rewarded. In one of the film's most touching, pivotal scenes, Michael insists that the Tuohys eat Thanksgiving dinner around the dining room table instead of in front of the television. Later in the film, we see Michael logging long hours with a tutor—work that pays off when he gets the grades he needs to play football at Ole Miss.

The world of Moneyball, on the other hand, is conspicuously more broken. The one glimpse we get of an intact family is grim: a washed-up catcher staring blankly at the TV at Christmastime while his wife pores over a stack of bills in the next room. And as hard as Beane works, as pioneering as his managing techniques may be, he is ultimately bested by teams with more money.

The most dramatic illustration of the difference in these two movies—and, by extension, the contrasting visions of sports they represent—is their respective final scenes. The Blind Side ends with a montage of happy photos of Michael and the Tuohys: Michael graduating, Michael on the football field, Michael holding up his Baltimore Ravens jersey at the NFL draft. It's a classic tear-jerking ending: even tough-guy pro football players didn't make it out of the theater with dry eyes. And it offers that finality Thompson believes we crave in sports. Boy starts out homeless, winds up playing for the Ravens. The end.

Moneyball 's ending is, predictably, more ambiguous. The film closes with Beane in the car, listening to a song his daughter wrote for him. It's a sweet, upbeat tune—but as the scene fades to black, we hear the song's final lines: "You're a loser, dad, you're such a loser, dad." On one level, this last verse is just a precocious little girl teasing her father. It's cute. On another level, though, the words cut uncomfortably close to the truth. Beane is a loser, at least by his own definition. Remember: "If you lose the last game of the season, no one gives a shit."

Moneyball doesn't move you to happy tears the way The Blind Side does; instead, it leaves you with a nagging, pit-of-the-stomach sadness that takes an hour or two to dissolve. The movie is complicated, open-ended, and lacks any real sense of closure. Just like an almost-perfect baseball game.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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