Oscar Profile: Moneyball

by Tom Ingram

Genre Sports
People Brad Pitt p.a.; Jonah Hill; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Robin Wright; Aaron Sorkin w.; Steven Zaillian w.; Wally Pfister c.
/10 9

The manager of a small Major League baseball club tries to reinvent baseball by building a cheap team that is optimized to win based on statistical principles, rather than traditional methods of baseball evaluation.

The psychologist Robyn Dawes argued many times throughout his career that statistical models—even extremely simple ones that take into account a small number of easily available variables—are much better than “clinical expertise” at making predictions about patients. As in, so much better it would be hilarious if we weren’t talking about mental illness. Around the same time that Dawes came to prominence, similar findings surfaced in other fields. In the late 20th century, we discovered that most experts are not as good at making predictions as the simplest mathematical formulas. Today, we live in a world that is just starting to see the implications of this.

Moneyball probably will not win Best Picture, but it is perhaps the most important film on the list. Of a slate of 9 films, seven of them are overtly backward-looking. Many of them are set in the distant past and deal with themes of nostalgia. Moneyball is a film about the future, about what is going to improve, what is going to change for the worse, and what will stay the same.

Brad Pitt is the brooding failed baseball player who is only now coming to realize that he never had a chance. He’s traditional, but he’s no idiot—he knows what’s coming and what it means for people like him, and he doesn’t know what to feel about it. Jonah Hill is a surprisingly good choice in his serious role as the pudgy, weak-chinned Yale economics major who has the gall to say he knows about baseball. Hill has had more weighty roles before—while Get Him To The Greek was a dumb Judd Apatow movie, it is perhaps the best dumb Judd Apatow movie, and Hill did an excellent job there. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the team’s coach—not a bad guy, but entirely steeped in the traditional approach that just won’t work anymore.

The story is as economical and well-paced as you can expect from an Aaron Sorkin script, and the whole thing is put together very smoothly. It doesn’t look like a Best Picture winner, but if I had a vote, I know where I’d cast it.

Moneyball is especially interesting because what am I doing, if not something that could be done better by a formula. That is correct; an Oscar winner predicting machine would almost certainly do better than even the most experienced critic. However, there are a few important points to take note of:

  1. The fun of this sort of thing isn’t in making accurate predictions. It’s in seeing how your intuition does: setting up expectations and seeing them confirmed (yay! I’m smart) or denied (either a pleasant surprise or something fun to bitch about).
  2. The critic’s job is mostly not predicting what will win, but what should win. The function in our heads that makes aesthetic judgments is, unfortunately, still a black box.
  3. Movie critics are, on average, much better writers than economists. If this weren’t the case, the situation in Moneyball would never have happened.

Up for:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Actor (Pitt)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Hill)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Zaillian and Sorkin)
  • Best Sound Mixing
  • Best Film Editing