4.5 / 5 stars
When Billy Beane’s current contract ends as Oakland Athletics’ General Manager, he will have been the baseball club’s head decision-maker just over 20 years. That’ll be in 2019. But the groundbreaking moves he made in 2002 are what captured the mind of prolific author Michael Lewis, leading to his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (that unfair game being Major League Baseball and its lopsided balance of success). So how does a book about the finances behind baseball statistics yield a film? Hollywood pondered that exact question for a while, before this crafty underdog tale landed with director Bennett Miller (Capote) and powerhouse screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster). If you think pedigree like that would result in a superlative film, you’d be right.
Moneyball is accessible to the non-fan — Brad Pitt helps, of course, but more on that later — but it’s not like Miller completely avoids computer screens full of batting averages and runs and essential dork-love baseball formulae. They’re in there. But there’s a larger puzzle involved, an untested theory that’s a revolutionary upheaval of the big-business status quo, and that’s the real romance of Moneyball. One guy can think differently, ignore established barriers and move full steam ahead. Billy Beane, the screen character, is a chaw-chewing, easygoing California version of Take This Job and Shove It. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?
The general idea that Beane embraces comes from a brilliant character named Peter Brand (Oscar nominee Jonah Hill), a composite of real-life guys that believe the art of “buying” baseball players is tremendously flawed. Their goal becomes to purchase wins instead, relying on ridiculously comprehensive stats to identify undervalued ballplayers and scoop them up at bargain-basement prices.
In terms of cinematic conflict, this is a gold mine. Beane sits in a roomful of grizzled veteran scouts, questioning their inability to evolve, aggressively getting what he wants. Beane and Brand hustle phone calls to trade players with other GMs, trying to quietly sneak in the backdoor of baseball success without letting their peers know what they’re up to.
As you’d expect, Sorkin and Zaillian’s dialogue is classic crackerjack stuff, full of well-timed tension and smart back-and-forth pacing. It doesn’t have the fantasy mega-speed of Sorkin’s The West Wing or The Social Network, and it shouldn’t. Pitt portrays Beane with a variety of rhythms and his clipped, quick delivery counters perfectly with Jonah Hill’s sheepish, more deliberate replies. You get the feeling these guys could have made an effective buddy road movie or cop comedy.
Pitt’s performance is deceptively great, and the award season accolades he received are well-deserved. Moneyball really works if we believe that Beane has the brains and personality to make his cuckoo idea happen — of course, Brad Pitt has the megastar persona to start a step ahead, but he succeeds beyond that with great subtlety and restrains Beane’s personality, keeping the GM’s fears and personal demons internalized. Miller gives us just the right amount of insight via flashbacks, drawing a parallel between the way Beane analyzes players and the way he was judged as a bonus-baby superstar teenager.
If Moneyball had been produced with traditional straight-and-narrow filmmaking methods, it’d still be satisfying. But the movie’s editing style, executed by Oscar nominee Christopher Tellefsen, puts an unexpected tilt on some scenes, playing with both conventional and less-conventional rhythms. A particular sequence involving Beane and his preteen daughter (the sweet Kerris Dorsey) in a guitar shop offers a perfect example, lingering on Pitt’s reactions longer than expected as his kid delights and surprises him. It’s a beautiful sequence, proving Moneyball’s great value as a character study posing as a baseball movie.