Moneyball is not your grandpa’s baseball movie. Even if you don’t know a fly ball from a snowball, and couldn’t care less how the great American pastime turned into the great American religion, this is a great American movie that will leave you cheering.
Sure, it’s the familiar formula about a losing team (the Oakland Athletics) catapulted to glory by a tough, idealistic general manager (controversial Billy Beane, immortalized in a compelling performance by Brad Pitt, at the top of his game). But thanks to the awesome collaboration of two brilliant Oscar-winning screenwriters, Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), and one polished director, Bennett Miller (Capote), expect a vacation from clichés and a home run in the final inning with the bases loaded.
Based on the best-seller by sports writer Michael Lewis, Moneyball details the unconventional strategy devised by Beane shortly after the A’s lost the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees in 2001. In a sink-or-swim decision, he compared the other teams funded by huge budgets and his own team’s owners and outdated scouts who couldn’t afford to recruit champions, and weighed his options: “We’re the last dog bowl in the room—and you know what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.”
During a strategy meeting to beg favors from the Cleveland Indians, he notices a fat, nerdy young economics graduate from Yale named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who specializes in team management based on player analysis. To everyone’s amazement and derision, he becomes fascinated by such an oddball and actually hires him as his assistant. Brand hits the computer and comes up with 25 names they can afford. They re-built the team with tapped losers, traded for damaged players, and bargained for defective rejects, then switched their positions on the field. Even Art Howe, the pessimistic new team coach (startlingly bald Philip Seymour Hoffman) was hired with a one-year contract because it’s all their budget would allow. Shy, almost socially retarded, and definitely inept in business, Brand nevertheless juggled figures in his head and came up with a scheme that revolutionized major league baseball. “Adapt or die” was the new motto. It was a colossal gamble, but suddenly the game was blackjack, and young Beane and his even younger new assistant became the players who changed the casino rules.
Treating baseball as science, they called their eyebrow-raising experiment “moneyball” and the press massacred them for it. But when the Oakland A’s won 19 games in a row—the longest winning streak in baseball—the team soared to American League stardom. The rest is history.
It’s a story that holds up beautifully in the re-telling, but the best thing about Moneyball is the human element. Beane is not soft-pedaled into a deity, and Pitt takes impeccable precautions not to underplay his abrasive personality. Except for caring about his daughter’s respect and a grudging fondness for his remarried ex-wife (Robin Wright, in a one-scene cameo) there’s nothing about his personal life. He shows no hidden compassion for his players as human beings, trading and cutting them at will with no advance warning, flies into rants and smashes up the furniture at will.
You may not admire him, but you can’t help but like Pitt, even when he overdoes his trademark mannerism of saying almost every line with his mouth full of food and drink. (At last week’s Toronto International Film Festival, he admitted he doesn’t even like baseball.)
Chubby Hill is perfect casting as Brand, the computer doofus obsessed with statistics, but his own private life is a blank page, too. Hoffman is largely wasted in the dugout, looking grouchy. Still, in the crack pacing, smart dialogue and exhilarating camerawork by Wally Pfister, any quibbles of mine are minor. This is a subtle, elegant and altogether triumphant film about a subject I thought I was tired of, told with an artistry and freshness that is positively thrilling.