Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is unquestionably a great movie. What makes it more remarkable is that not only is it a great movie, but that it’s a great movie despite its being about a subject that few other than hardcore baseball fans and purists care about — or even know about. It’s a remarkable achievement, to take a subject as dense and complicated as Billy Beane’s statistical, small ball approach to baseball (based on Bill James’ theory of sabermetrics) as outlined in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, and not only parse it out so that it’s understandable for the average viewer, but that it’s enjoyable for the average viewer.
If that sounded like gobbledygook, don’t be disheartened. Moneyball isn’t just charts and graphs. Instead, it’s a story about a select group of individuals working to effect change in an industry with a century’s worth of tradition, bucking a firmly entrenched system determined to keep its heels firmly and resolutely dug into its immaculately groomed grassy fields. Brad Pitt plays Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, coming off a season where they narrowly missed advancing in the playoffs, trying to find a way to compete with $100+ million teams with a $38 million budget. His staff is working on filling the gaps created by the losses of three of their best players, players who fled to brighter lights in bigger cities with deeper pockets. The truth that Beane realizes is that they’re literally irreplaceable — at least with the payroll that they have. Instead, he turns to young Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who espouses that they can build a championship team out of smaller parts, the cast-offs and detritus of a league that’s more fascinated with big guns and wasteful, massive payrolls, rather than a small, efficiently run army of role-players.
There’s a genuinely affecting, David-and-Goliath flavor to the film, as Beane and Brand (who, for unknown legal reasons, is actually Paul DePodesta in real life) battle forces outside and within their organization, trying to prove their theory in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Criticism comes from all sides — the fans, the media, other baseball minds, and not the least of which includes the Athletics own scouts and staff — most notably from manager Art Howe (yet another excellent, chameleonic performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The plan is a disaster from the start, for the combination of injured, defective, and cast-off players are asked to fulfill roles they’ve never played before, and the chemistry is virtually sabotaged by a resolutely stubborn Howe, who takes what he’s given but refuses to use the system those parts are created for.
A film such as Moneyball could have gone in two poorly chosen directions — either become another kooky Major League ripoff, or become a cumbersome, boring affair that feels more like a math lesson than art. It’s true that of all the sports, baseball is the most stat-driven, and Beane’s adaptation of James’ theories made that mountain even taller, as they focus more on smaller, intensely scrutinized models rather than on simply piling up big hitters and strong arms. Situational baseball is a radical departure, particularly in the late steroid-era, and one which infuriated fans everywhere.
But the film’s salvation is outstanding writing and dialogue (scripted by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian). Sorkin’s dialogue style is clearly stamped on every scene, though for the most part, he avoids the rapid-fire patois that he’s famous for. Instead the film is much more steadily paced, a contemplative picture featuring dialogue that feels real, yet is still wonderfully entertaining. The banter between Brand and Beane is at times playful, at times deadly serious, but at all times fascinating. In fact, Brad Pitt makes the movie, and he does so with with the faux-casual confidence of a man who’s trying to show the world that he knows exactly what he’s doing, even though he’s secretly terrified that he’s in the middle of the greatest mistake in 100 years of baseball tradition. Hill eschews much of his manic shtick in favor of the anxious zealotry of a young Turk who’s suddenly been given way more responsibility than he ever expected. He’s fully confident in his scheme, but his greatest fear is that it’ll be abandoned before it has a chance to evolve to its fruition. The supporting actors are all solid, particularly the trio of ballplayers that the film focuses on — troubled party boy Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo), veteran slugger David Justice (Stephen Bishop), and most notably the shaky, injury-ridden reclamation project Scott Hatteberg, played with a quiet, nervous earnestness by Chris Pratt.
The story is equally fascinating because most baseball fans know how it ends, and that makes the style of storytelling a huge challenge in terms of keeping it engaging and entertaining in the face of its already scripted ending. Director Bennett Miller foregoes the archetype of a conventional climax, instead settling in for a stronger middle section that culminates in a breathtaking, chest-tightening depiction of the A’s mid-season 20-game winning streak. It’s the highlight of the film, and it’s shot with a sure-handed steadiness that was incredibly compelling, and then it slowly settles down as they ease towards the film’s ending and we see the true impact and consequences of the sabermetrical approach. The cinematography is excellent and a strong companion to the story, switching between wide shots of the gorgeous ballparks to close-in, character driven shots of the actors’ faces as they confront their particular challenges.
Moneyball is at its heart a baseball movie. In some ways, it feels like one of the grandaddies of baseball movies, a perfect example of why we watch the game and why they play it. It’s a plot- and character-driven piece that examines the fragile psyches of its players and personnel, humanizing them with an honesty that exposes the good and the bad about the sport, its people and its history, traditions and troubles. It’s a slow-burning picture that rarely resorts to cheap, overwrought finales. It’s at times extremely funny, but it always maintains a serious — sometimes desperate — tone, but doesn’t descend into maudlin theatrics. The performances of Pitt, Hill and Hoffman are uniformly excellent, and they, Sorkin’s dialogue and Miller’s keen directing combine to create a powerful, intricately designed film about the world of baseball, and perhaps more importantly, baseball’s place in our world.