From 'Moneyball' to 'Ford v Ferrari': In Praise of the Thoughtful Sports Movie

Math doesn't have to be boring.

Moneyball
Columbia Pictures

We like sports movies because we like to be a part of something. If they can deliver a team or player that’s enthralling but just scrappy enough to root for, the emotional leap any viewer has to make is significantly shorter, and importantly, nearly universal. The sports movie genre usually has clearly defined stakes, often a championship game, to structure the plot around. It also tends to have a conflict that’s understandable, a personal or interpersonal struggle that any one of us could encounter. What sports movies don’t tend to have is math.

Enter my personal favorite subgenre, the nerdy sports movie. This is a sports movie that offers all of the above but with a couple added wrinkles. Usually, these movies don’t revolve around athletes or coaches, but the upper management of the team or individual in question. Sure, there’s a game or championship to be won, but it will only be shown in clips. The conflicts in these films might not boil down to a matter of skill — instead, it’s a matter of will — and they’ll happen in a boardroom, not on a basketball court. Together these teams can go far, but not without that special someone who has the vision of what it takes and is hyper-nerdy about how they achieve that vision. Draft Day is a good example of this type of movie, and shades of this occur in Jerry Maguire. But the ultimate nerdy sports movie is Moneyball.

Moneyball isn’t trying to unseat Field of Dreams in the baseball movie pantheon. It’s got a much more ambitious project at hand. Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics (A’s) baseball team. The film, which is based on a true story, starts with a loss. The A’s have just failed to make it to the 2001 World Series. As Billy begins the process of restructuring the team, he comes across statistician Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). In a spectacular scene that could be straight out of a ’70s political thriller, Peter reveals to Billy that folks in the industry have been reluctant to change their tactics in the wake of a sports culture that’s skewed towards teams with extensive brand-power and finances. He explains that the A’s best chance isn’t with expensive superstars but a careful algorithm that selects overlooked players strictly for their numerical stats.

I had to re-take pre-calculus in high school, so I’ll be the first to say a film about sports math should have gone way over my head. The curveball here is that it does not. Director Bennet Miller, working with a script penned by Aaron Sorkin, is precise in how much he explains, and to what extent, and he lands right in the strike zone. We get that these guys have a depth of knowledge we could never hope to replicate, but we also understand the logic enough to get on board with their project. Essentially, as Peter explains, the A’s can combine the on-base averages of enough cheap players to equal the scoring impact of one or two expensive players.

As the characters struggle to convince the world that they’ve figured out something special, we get to fight right alongside them, because we’ve figured it out, too. Through the use of elegant montages and some wonderfully tense boardroom sequences, we come to understand what so many in the league do not. Although underdog stories are inherent to sports movies, the implications here are far greater than that. It’s not a game that’s at stake; it’s the fundamental way we understand the sport of baseball.

This connection between the audience and the characters is achieved due to a shared understanding of a highly intricate system of statistics, and also through the passionate performances. Pitt is batting a thousand, leaning into Billy’s paradoxical mix of intensity and chill-guy energy. Instead of a stock sports movie performance of a tough-but-fair coach, Pitt gets to play a well-rounded character. He clearly has a deep love of the game but recognizes its failings, which is engaging to watch. Billy’s personal and professional drama is incredibly powerful. By delving into the math, and identifying with Billy on an intellectual level as well as an emotional level, we get such catharsis in their victories and defeats.

Another more recent entry into the subgenre is James Mangold‘s Ford v. Ferrari, which leans into technical aspects in a way I find very nerdy. Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a former racer turned sports car designer and manufacturer who combines forces with Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a crotchety yet spectacular driver. The two work with the Ford Motor Company to try to win the 24-hour race at Le Mans in the 1960s.

Throughout the film, the characters are constantly tuning up the car, testing, theorizing on how to make it lighter, faster, and even faster. These scenes are remarkable for similar reasons as the math scenes in Moneyball. Once we know what goes into building the car, the racing sequences are more impactful visually and emotionally. Shelby and Miles are fighting against corporate masters who refuse to believe in their ability and expertise, and by letting the audience peek under the hood, we connect seamlessly.

Even better, Damon’s performance benefits from the nerdiness much like Pitt’s does. When faced with Ford execs who do not see the big picture and cannot understand the particular skill that goes into crafting a race car, Shelby’s anger is justified. In a performance that could be a tad much, with a Southern accent and aggressive swagger, Damon is pitch-perfect. To understand the guy, we had to understand the car, so when he swings for the fences with his acting style, we’re still on board.

Ford v. Ferrari could benefit from even more nerdiness. It’s a little over-invested in Miles’ family life and the corporate haggling at the Ford company. Part of me is nervous we won’t get another nerdy sports movie quite as committed to mathematics as Moneyball ever again. It’s such rich terrain for sports fans and movie stans alike and offers something new to the well-trodden territory. Perhaps the time will come for another perfectly math-y, nerdy, out of the ballpark home run.

(Intern)

Film studies student by day and usually by night. Would buy that for a dollar.