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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Moneyball

By
John P. McCarthy
Source: Catholic News Service


Brad Pitt stars in a scene from the movie "Moneyball."
Those who believe America's national pastime is more resistant to the corrosive effects of money than other pro sports will find equally persuasive ammunition and counterargument in "Moneyball" (Columbia).

Based on Michael Lewis' 2003 book about baseball's Oakland Athletics, this thinking person's sports flick identifies how big bucks have negatively affected the grand old game in recent decades. Yet the fundamental problem is not just the exorbitant sums players are being paid. Rather, it's that those funds are being irrationally allocated by those who ought to know better—owners, general managers, scouts and coaches.

It isn't an easy case to make on screen, particularly in a mainstream feature whose primary objective is to entertain (and thereby turn a profit). Fortunately, the true-life tale has an appealing, principled hero. His name is Billy Beane and he's portrayed by Brad Pitt. We meet Beane, an ex-ballplayer, at the end of the 2001 season. He's general manager of the A's, a small-market team that has made it to the playoffs and then had its roster looted by richer ballclubs.

Replacing talent like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon on a shoestring budget is a herculean task. With palpable frustration, Beane challenges his old-school underlings, including a chorus of veteran scouts and his crusty manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to think differently when assessing player talent.

Then, on a horse-trading visit to the Cleveland Indians during the offseason, he encounters a young staffer with an economics degree from Yale. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) advocates a statistics-based approach gleaned from the writings of analyst Bill James, who's considered a fringe figure by the baseball establishment. Using complex metrics, Brand's method consists of identifying certain skills in undervalued athletes who can be signed on the cheap. Specifically, it seeks those whose high on-base percentage will lead to runs and hence wins.

Desperate, Beane hires Brand to be his assistant and the pair meets significant resistance as they piece together a competitive squad with a comparatively miniscule payroll. The A's enter the 2002 campaign as huge underdogs. The season's ups and downs are related to Beane's own playing career, and their effect on his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) are also touchingly dramatized.

Director Bennett Miller ("Capote"), working from a script by two lauded screenwriters, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, has made a mature, cerebral and understatedly wise film. There's nothing flashy about it, and the lack of hot-dogging means the movie's considerable humor has to grow organically. Viewers shouldn't expect to emerge sticky with pine tar and tobacco juice, since it's not a jock-fest offering much feel for how the game is played on the diamond.

Aimed at the uninitiated as much as diehard fans, "Moneyball" dares to be quiet and circumspect. There are no easy answers on tap; like baseball, it's about patience and believing in a process. Still, explaining the underlying theory in more detail, particularly early on, would make it more accessible. And the leisurely pacing sometimes makes it feel like an extra-inning pitchers' duel. As for the performances, Pitt and Hill are enjoyable, although the younger actor isn't completely convincing in the role.

In the final analysis, "Moneyball" is winsome because it sees beyond financial gain and number-crunching. Like the nobly motivated Beane, it respects the game while being eager to spur positive change. And it relays a timeless, double-headed lesson: Money can't buy baseball pennants or happiness.

The film contains two uses of rough language, some crude and crass language, an instance of sexual banter, a few sexist remarks, and a scene in which a player's religiosity is treated in a sarcastic manner. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.





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Philip Neri: Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise. 
<p>At an early age, he abandoned the chance to become a businessman, moved to Rome from Florence and devoted his life and individuality to God. After three years of philosophy and theology studies, he gave up any thought of ordination. The next 13 years were spent in a vocation unusual at the time—that of a layperson actively engaged in prayer and the apostolate. </p><p>As the Council of Trent (1545-63) was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality. Initially they met as an informal prayer and discussion group, and also served poor people in Rome. </p><p>At the urging of his confessor, he was ordained a priest and soon became an outstanding confessor, gifted with the knack of piercing the pretenses and illusions of others, though always in a charitable manner and often with a joke. He arranged talks, discussions and prayers for his penitents in a room above the church. He sometimes led “excursions” to other churches, often with music and a picnic on the way. </p><p>Some of his followers became priests and lived together in community. This was the beginning of the Oratory, the religious institute he founded. A feature of their life was a daily afternoon service of four informal talks, with vernacular hymns and prayers. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed music for the services. </p><p>The Oratory was finally approved after suffering through a period of accusations of being an assembly of heretics, where laypersons preached and sang vernacular hymns! (Cardinal Newman founded the first English-speaking house of the Oratory three centuries later.) </p><p>Philip’s advice was sought by many of the prominent figures of his day. He is one of the influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself. His characteristic virtues were humility and gaiety.</p> American Catholic Blog We need do no more than we are doing at present; that is, to love divine Providence and abandon ourselves in his arms and heart.<br />—St. Padre Pio

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