The great American movie Moneyball centers on our great American sport, but is less about the sport itself and more about the people behind the scenes, those who constantly grapple with one recurring feeling: Disappointment. Baseball, after all, is a sport based on winning and losing, and Moneyball’s lead character, Billy Beane (the wonderful Brad Pitt in full movie-star mode), the general manager of the Oakland A’s, will stop and nothing in order to come out on top. But because baseball is a game, only one team can say that they’ve won the final game of the season. This is what Beane has been striving for his entire career, and the endless quest to win that final game will likely forever drive him as a competitor. In terms of bucking the standard conventions of your typical sports movie, the brilliance of Moneyball lies in how it doesn’t take a rote approach to telling a story focused on a sport that we’re all familiar with. Much like The Social Network (the two films share the invaluable Aaron Sorkin as writer and Scott Rudin as producer) this is an “inside-the-machine” movie, looking at the sport of baseball from an analytical and statistical point of view. But rather than bogging down the narrative with numbers and esoteric jargon to the point of confusion and/or boredom, Sorkin, and his estimable co-screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Searching for Bobby Fisher) have shaped Michael Lewis’s book into an emotional journey for Beane, as a coach, father, and friend.
Choosing to center your film on the notion of “sabremetrics” was a bold and unique decision. And considering the numerous starts and stops for Moneyball throughout its development, it’s remarkable that director Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher) was able to deliver such a clear cut vision (Steven Soderbergh was set to direct before the movie collapsed over “creative differences.”) Taking a niche subject and a somewhat unfilmable book and turning it into a quietly powerful film is no easy task, so much credit needs to be given to Sorkin and Zaillian. If you know their work, you’ll hear Sorkin’s witty, satiric voice in the rapid-fire dialogue, while the fluid structure, which deftly mixes flashbacks of Billy Beane’s subpar minor and major league career as a way of making correlations to what Beane as a manager was going through with his team, can be traced to Zaillian’s confidently guiding hand in the organization department. And instead of giving you a saintly approach to the head coach role, as written, Beane is a man of steadfast, stubborn convictions, willing to ruffle feathers, and more than happy to berate and fire people who aren’t valuing his new found philosophy. Many of the film’s best scenes take place within the team’s closed-door strategy meetings with the scouts, all of whom were either phenomenally well cast or the real deal. What Sorkin and Zaillian have done so well is that you don’t need to be a baseball expert to understand the sometimes arcane, economics-based approach to the sport that’s on display. Moneyball is an “inside-baseball” movie, something that really hasn’t been done before, and it sits right next to Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham as one of the best films to spotlight our national pastime.
But the key to Moneyball’s success is the rapport between Pitt and Jonah Hill, who both delivered engaging, funny, and totally inviting performances. Pitt hasn’t been this out-right-likable and charming in years, and it’s a treat watching him literally transforming into his generation’s Robert Redford right before our eyes. There’s an animal magnetism to Pitt as actor, and as he’s gotten older, the lines in his face and around his eyes have begun to express a vulnerability that was absent in his earlier work. Pitt plays Beane as a man trying to be a better father to a daughter that he doesn’t get to spend enough time with, and as such, no matter how much of a thorn-in-the-side he is to his teammates (he makes many selfish decisions in an effort to preserve his vision), you’re always on his side. Look at this performance and then contrast it to the tough-love-S.O.B. dad in The Tree of Life or the low-lives he so brilliantly essayed in Killing them Softly and The Counselor – Pitt loves to quietly stretch his range, and his not afraid of taking chances as an actor.
And Hill, playing the awkward comic relief to Pitt in the role of a stats-obsessed advisor who helps Beane develop and implement the sabermetrics system of player evaluation, was perfectly and smartly cast against Pitt, and the two of them immediately demonstrate a chemistry that’s hysterical to see unfold. Hill, who got his start as an Apatow class-clown and who has been killing it in every raunchy comedy made over the last 10 years or so, was a perfect partner for Pitt, and his career stretching work in this film would serve as a warm-up to his brilliant turn in The Wolf of Wall Street. He was also fantastic in the underseen black comedy Cyrus. Pitt and Hill couldn’t be any more different when it comes to performance style, personality, appearance, and expectation. Hill, playing a fictionalized version of real-life-stats-guru Paul De Podesta named Peter Brand, gets the lion’s share of the movie’s laughs, but also registers strongly as a dramatic presence. Without their bond, Moneyball wouldn’t be as powerful as it ultimately becomes, as the two men teach each other about themselves and about the sport that they love. It should also be mentioned that Philip Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly good as Art Howe, the put-upon manager who has to deal with Beane’s unconventional methods.
Moneyball doesn’t end with the last play of the game on the final pitch in the bottom of the ninth. It’s not that sort of movie and doesn’t want to be; it couldn’t be less interested in final-pitch heroics and dramatics if it tried. Wally Pfister’s intimate cinematography captures the sport in all of its glory when that sort of thing is called for, but instead takes a measured approach to the action, following Beane around relentlessly as he tries to figure out what his next move will be. Mychael Danna’s amazingly subtle yet highly effective musical score helps underline the big emotional beats without ever grandstanding or calling attention to itself. But what’s truly exceptional about the film is that it definitely does deliver a rousing, totally satisfying emotional release upon its conclusion, despite not bowing to the “final game” or “impassioned coach’s speech” cliché that we’ve seen a hundred times already. And when thought about at length, one realizes how the message of the film (echoed by Pitt’s daughter singing the lyric “You’re such a loser, Dad” during the end credits) is that losing is part of our culture, and at the end of the day, it’s more about how you conduct yourself as a person than it is about how many games you’ve won. In that sense, it’s very similar to Peter Berg’s fantastic high school football movie Friday Night Lights, and joins the ranks as one o the finest contemporary sports films ever made. It’s not about winning or losing, but about how the game has been played.