”How can you not be romantic about baseball?”suggests Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane in the new film Moneyball from director Bennett Miller. It’s a question directed more at the audience than the characters on screen as Miller creates a visceral experience that invokes the sights and sounds of a ballpark. Stripped down to slow motion shots of players in action – bats cracking, balls hitting gloves, the intense face of a determined base runner – Miller shows us the fundamentals of America’s greatest game.
Yet the action during the games inhabit a small portion of the film’s total running time and the field exists on screen more for establishing shots than as a locale for narrative progress. This is because Moneyball is not your typical underdog sports story. Rather than focusing on the athleticism of the sport, we see the background workings of a professional team and how numbers and statistics are as much a factor as how hard a pitcher can throw. Most of all, Moneyball is about a guy who tries hard to use numbers and analysis to make his decisions while avoiding a personal connection, but inevitably is forced to think with his heart.
The guy is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), General Manager of the Oakland A’s during the 2002 season. After being knocked out of the American League Division Series and losing top players Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi to teams with more money, Beane is tasked with rebuilding the A’s with a limited budget. Beane’s passion for the game is clear from the start as he meets with the team owner to ask for more money with tears welling in his eyes. It’s the first time we don’t see him with his feet up, artificially portraying calmness while the gears in his head go to work.
After meeting with his mostly geriatric staff of scouts, Beane travels to Cleveland to talk trades with another GM when he notices a lower level staffer suggesting the Indians hold onto players that appear to be nobodies. Beane accosts this Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in a parking garage, creating a scene that invokes classic spy movies, where he learns of a formula that puts more emphasis on statistics like runs and on base percentage instead of batting average and home runs. Beane immediately hires Brand to be his new Assistant GM and the pair embarks on a plan to use statistics almost exclusively in their journey to create a winning team, much to the chagrin of the team scouts and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuse to play by Beane’s rules.
The statistical analysis used to rank players is of such high mathematic caliber that it could lose even the more baseball savvy of audience members, but ace screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian deliver it in such a way that it never gets confusing. The players in question are initially presented as just numbers, but eventually get wonderfully developed back stories like in the cases of Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) and David Justice (Stephen Bishop). These connections to a player’s personal life forces Beane to see them as people, rather than statistics which complicates his newly discovered method.
In many ways Moneyball is a lot like Aaron Sorkin’s last film The Social Network. It portrays the classic confrontation of jocks versus nerds with unique perspective because the individual leading the nerd charge is a fit and good-looking former athlete. This leads to an inner conflict in Beane that inspires one of Brad Pitt’s greatest performances ever. He infuses Beane with a combination of childlike enthusiasm, pure passion for the game, and a calculating manner. The best acting choice he makes is using restraint and the result is pure emotional honesty, rather than showy awards bait (which means this may not be the Academy’s first choice).
Director Bennett Miller shows similar restraint with the camera. We often see long steady shots where Miller simply allows the action on screen to play out, which serves to create great suspense like in a fantastic scene where Beane and Brand dial numerous teams to restructure the team on a whim. The editing is used to punctuate the comic timing like when the shot cuts to a deadpan Jonah Hill, trying to hide his emotions but incapable. This shows some excellent work by cinematographer Wally Pfister who captures the manager’s office with the same sense of drama as the beautifully shot empty ball fields.
While Moneyball can certainly be appreciated by any audience, it is ultimately a movie mad for people who love baseball. There are a few jabs taken at people who know nothing about baseball, most notably in a fantastic cameo from Spike Jonze (which is right up there with Adrien Brody in Midnight in Paris as the best cameo of the year). Moneyball will likely be a big player in this year’s awards race where people will try to sell it as more dramatic than it actually is. Its success, however, is in its straight-forward telling of a fascinating story about America’s most romantic sport.
Bottom Line: Moneyball will be more appreciated by people who love baseball, but the performances and pace can be appreciated by anyone.