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How Moneyball Swings For the Storytelling Fences

My son loves sports. Movies not so much. 

Back when he was still a Padawan, me and Ethan watched Star Wars all the time. Pixar movies were another staple in our household, and we saw them all in the theater, often right around his birthday, sometimes even on the day itself. Friday movie nights and trips to the theater were a constant of his childhood.

But the little dude was always a verb, and sitting still was never his jam. The older Ethan got, the more true this became. I could always feel him getting restless fifteen minutes into most movies, though the kid could easily watch a three-hour baseball game. 

It is not exactly a curveball for me to tell you that Moneyball is one of his favorite movies. His second, specifically. You’ll know his first favorite before the end of this post. And while his affection for Moneyball prompted me to write this post, the movie’s storytelling prowess makes it worthy of your storyteller’s viewing list. 

Beneath all the baseball stats and the boardroom battles, the movie boasts the kind of complex characters and universal themes that make a story resonate.

Stepping Up to the Plate

Moneyball is an underdog story about how the Oakland A’s — a team with one of the smallest budgets in the MLB — challenged the status quo and revolutionized the entire game by embracing an unconventional approach to player recruitment.

It’s also a hero’s journey, charting the personal and professional redemption of Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, played by Brad Pitt. I love that Moneyball made Ethan appreciate Pitt, opening his mind to other movies with the actor. 

My son doesn’t usually like a lot of dialogue in his movies. Miserable upon leaving the theater after seeing Steve Jobs, Ethan complained: “All they did was talk!”

Aaron Sorkin wrote both films, but Moneyball’s narrative is crafted around Billy’s journey, using the A’s 2002 season as the crucible in which his ideas and his character are tested for a story that mainlines right into Ethan’s interests. 

The Lineup 

A strong narrative means nothing without compelling characters, and Moneyball shines bright here. Billy is flawed but relatable, a protagonist driven by his past failures as a player and his present desire to succeed as a manager. He is haunted by doubt and the fear of history repeating itself.

Pitt’s depth and nuance makes Billy Beane more than just a baseball executive with a novel idea. We see him as a father, a friend, and a leader, struggling to balance his personal and professional lives while staying true to his vision.

Peter Brand is played by Jonah Hill in his first (I think?) dramatic role. Ethan’s favorite movie is Superbad, also starring Jonah. The contrast between the characters should prove the dude can act without a doubt. It’s also worth noting that Ethan also loves the dialogue here. 

Brand is Billy’s unconventional mentor, a Yale-educated economist who introduces him to the concept of sabermetrics — a statistical secret sauce that revolutionized the sport. Yes, he’s the movie’s essential numbers guy, but Brand also challenges Billy’s beliefs, offers a fresh perspective, and ultimately, helps him to grow as a leader.

Art Howe is the A’s manager and antagonist. Played with gruff stubbornness by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he represents the old guard and resistance to change that Billy must overcome. The character is a complex individual with his own motivations and beliefs, rather than a one-note villain. Hoffman failed to inspire the same exploration in Ethan as Mr. Fight Club himself, but his performance here is a fine example of how a skilled actor can turn a seemingly-minor character into a crucial piece of the narrative puzzle.

Swinging For the Fences

Innovation and disruption, challenging established norms and embracing new ideas, are the universal themes that elevate the film, resonating beyond the world of sports and speaking to the experience of anyone who has ever tried to change a system or a way of thinking. 

The movie explores the importance of adaption amid adversity. Beane and his team face multiple setbacks, from losing star players to budget constraints to skepticism in the baseball establishment. But their ability to pivot, adjusting their strategies and thinking, is what ultimately leads to their success.

From Page to Pitch

Moneyball is largely about statistics and sports, but Sorkin unearthed the human story within the data. He said this about the screenplay:

“You can’t really make a movie out of the book. The book’s about an idea. The way I cracked it was I thought of it as a story about a man who was presented with an idea and he gave up everything he believed and everything he thought he knew for this idea.”

Moneyball balances accuracy with narrative engagement, staying true to the core ideas and events of the source material while crafting a story arc and characters that keep me and Ethan side-by-side on the couch for the full two hours with neither one of us squirming.  

The Highlight Reel

Moneyball pulls from a bag of simple yet highly-effective cinematic tricks to keep us invested in the narrative, even when it’s dealing with stuff like baseball statistics that, in less deft hands, could be a mouthful of saltines in the Sahara dry. 

Montages show passing time and the team’s progress. Quick-cut sequences, often set to killer music, give us a sense of momentum and keep the pacing tight. The movie juxtaposes Billy’s work life and relationship with his daughter. Cutting back and forth between these two worlds makes us feel the tension and emotional toll of his job. 

But closeups are the real MVPs of Moneyball’s visual storytelling. In the climactic scene where Billy must make a game-changing trade, these cinematic elements converge like a perfectly-executed double play. The montage of memories, the seamless transitions between past and present, the unwavering focus on Billy’s expressions… the storytelling hits it out of the park.

Hitting the Storytelling Sweet Spot

Moneyball is about data, management, and challenging the status quo. And baseball, of course. It could have easily been a by-the-numbers movie about the sport, leaning into or even on our collective nostalgia. Instead, it found a fresh lens through which to view our national pastime for a movie that feels unique yet universal.

This movie reminds us of the value of embracing unconventional ideas and taking risks in the creative process. Billy and Brand challenged baseball’s established wisdom. Storytellers should always be willing to question the norms and tropes of their craft, explore new territories, and experiment with form if they want to grow. 

Moneyball could have been drier than a dissertation on the molecular structure of boredom, considering that it’s about the use of statistical analysis in baseball. Instead it’s an emotionally-resonant narrative focused on the human stories in the heart of that data.

Great storytelling, like a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, has the power to strike a chord inside us, even if we don’t know the difference between a squeeze play and a sacrificial bunt.