Sports movies have always been preoccupied with what’s happening on the field, the court, the ring or what have you. They tell stories of underdogs defying the odds and champion values of honor, courage and determination. “Moneyball” peels back that obvious first layer yet achieves all those very same ends. The sport of baseball is essential to this story, but the story isn’t dependent on baseball.
Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faced a debacle after his team lost the 2001 ALDS after being up on the New York Yankees, a team with three times the payroll. His star players, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen, were all free agents that the team would never be able to resign. Knowing that fans and the owner would expect another winning season, Beane turned to a young man named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an expert in sabermetrics, or boiling down statistics to evaluate players’ value rather the traditional scouting techniques and intuition. Together, Beane and Brand scraped together a team of undervalued players and made an improbable run at a pennant.
Foremost, “Moneyball” tells Beane’s story and the emotional ups and downs of trying to change the game. He didn’t care about championships or winning in the figurative sense, but about changing the game so that smaller teams would no longer be “organ donors” for wealthy clubs like the Yankees. Pitt continues to impress with his comedic abilities as Beane, playing him not all that dissimilar from Lt. Aldo Raine (“Inglourious Basterds”) in terms of charisma and humor, but obviously Beane is a much more believable and complete character.
Hill works as a terrific compliment, going for understatement and never so much as attempting to take any comedic reigns. He opts instead to wait for and pick his moments and then nails them. Whatever ounces of humor that veteran writers Steve Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay chooses to toss at us, none of it falls flat, especially thanks to the splendid delivery of Pitt and Hill.
Baseball has a key role in the film and fans of the sport will enjoy the feeling of being behind-the-scenes, but “Moneyball” never gets lost in a preoccupation with the outcome of the games and whether the A’s win or lose. Natural curiosity will be there for those unfamiliar with their early 2000s baseball history, but the story generates much more interest in how losing or winning will impact Beane. Devout baseball fans are used to only media portrayals of GMs that consist of either great praise or blame for the level of talent on the field, so this narrative perspective wherein Beane is a protagonist we actually like constitutes a drastic change.
The underdog team element that permeates most sports movies exists in small doses in “Moneyball.” Director Bennett Miller shows us just enough in-game action to raise the stakes and improve the suspense — no more, no less. The players depicted in the film, such as Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), David Justice (Stephen Bishop) and Chad Bradford (Casey Bond), are supporting characters that enhance the story on the periphery instead of through needless subplots. We still feel what’s at stake for them and appreciate the “second chance” of sorts that Beane has given them. Philip Seymour Hoffman as disgrunteld A’s manager Art Howe shows the unflattering side of coaches and serves as an effective roadblock on Beane’s road to success.
If anything, there’s a bit of a disconnect in the film between the philosophy of what Beane and Brand did and how it actually translated into success. There’s talk of taking more pitches and montage scenes of Beane and Brand coaching the players to an extent, but we’re asked to take the film’s word for it that the theory was in fact responsible for the on-field results. In the end it just limits the magnitude of the accomplishment. Instead of measuring our satisfaction on the success of the entire team, we measure it on whether Beane is happy or sad.
“Moneyball” amounts to insightful, character-driven drama with a lighthearted sense of humor — a refreshing departure from most baseball or sports films period. One game gets the reenactment treatment, but otherwise no genre cliches hang around in hopes of being used as a feel-good safety net. “Moneyball” spreads the sports message that all those sports values of courage and risk-taking still mean something even if they don’t culminate in a scene utilizing uplifting music and slow-motion celebrations.
Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by Steve Zaillan, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin, Michael Lewis (book)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman