Review: Moneyball

Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) shook the baseball establishment by ceding the realm of scouting jocks to statistics geeks. And fantasy players the world over rejoiced.

There’s a curious stigma attached to sports movies. For some reason, every time we get an above-average film about boxing (i.e. “The Fighter), baseball (“Sugar”), football (“Invincible”) or whatever, marketers put an inordinate amount of time and effort into insisting that it’s not “just a sports movie:” it’s an intimate character drama, it’s an authentic slice of American life, it’s an uplifting narrative of personal regret and redemption.

My question is: what sports film is NOT about those things? Where are these mythical movies that just feature two hours of pure game footage? Was “Field of Dreams” just a baseball flick? Was “Seabiscuit” as dull and dense as a Ken Burns documentary? Was “Rocky” just about a mumbling Italian?

OK, perhaps the last one is true, but “Moneyball” should trumpet its baseball-ness loudly and proudly. You can futz around all you want with what it’s “really about,” but baseball is the heart and soul of this film, and whatever your feelings towards the sport, that is not a bad thing for cinematic purposes. Call us suckers for an underdog, perhaps; but no other social venue delivers us such tales so consistently. The game captures our imagination.

Based on a true story (aren’t they always?), “Moneyball” follows the career of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who in 2002 rocked the baseball world by using intense statistical analysis to determine which players to draft, trade and play on a day-to-day basis. That sounds rather ho-hum, but the effect of sabermetrics (as this system is usually referred to) on the sport really can’t be overstated: for years, players were evaluated based on the unreliable impressions of scouts and flawed stats that ignored many on-field subtleties. Beane’s methods gave the low-budget A’s a brief window to outsmart high-spending big market teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

Looking back almost ten years later, we know that sabermetrics works. It’s not perfect, but pretty much every major league team now uses advanced stats to make moves (which means that the big money teams have the advantage again, but we’ll ignore that part). But at the time, Beane was running a dangerous experiment. Scouts, players and managers all felt that their jobs were threatened by the new metrics, with experienced veterans of the sport getting replaced by Beane’s bean-counters. Oakland’s owner was intensely afraid of being humiliated after the team made an impressive playoff run in 2001.

For Beane, the goal was the same as always: win a World Series. His innovation was in attempting a different way of reaching that goal. Likewise, “Moneyball” goes for the same targets as any other sports movie: inspiration, victory, redemption. But the film tweaks the usual approach, finding its narrative not so much in the game itself but in Beane’s behind-the-scenes antics. The Michael Lewis book on which “Moneyball” is based spent a lot of time on the ins and outs of statistical analysis and the main players in question; Beane’s career was something of a subplot.

But director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) and writers Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “The West Wing”) and Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York”) wisely push Beane to the forefront. Sorkin and Zaillian expertly layer the scenes set in 2002 with well-timed flashbacks to Beane’s youth, when he was signed as a blue-chip prospect to the New York Mets. The scouts, using traditional diagnostics like “he throws the ball good” insisted that the strapping lad was going to be a superstar. Beane turned down a full scholarship to Stanford to play ball, only to fizzle out in spectacular fashion, hitting only 3 home runs in his brief major league career.

So the stakes are personal for Beane, who, by the way, will also have to move away from his daughter if he loses his job. Pitt gives one of the better performances of his career here, injecting the confident and brash Beane with a humanizing helping of self-doubt and just a touch of the comedic strut he showed off in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Burn After Reading.” Beane refused (and still refuses) to watch the A’s play live, preferring to isolate himself in his office, or his car, or the gym. But there is unexpected poignancy in the way he can never quite hold himself back completely, periodically flicking on the radio or the TV to catch a glimpse of the score. The game always lures him back.

There are odd parallels in “Moneyball” to last year’s big Oscar winner, “The King’s Speech.” An unexpected friendship between two men, Beane and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, dialing back his Apatow training a bit to play a more realistic geek) challenges a conservative establishment that persistently insists, “This isn’t how things are done.”  A hounding media and stubborn opponents within their own organization (here embodied by a curmedgeonly Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing A’s manager Art Howe in unflattering fashion) provide even more adversity. But, just as Colin Firth’s King Edward gradually found his voice through unorthodox methods, a peculiar thing happened in Oakland: the A’s started winning. And they kept winning.

The incredible streak that catapulted the 2002 Oakland A’s into history is deftly executed by Miller and his crew. The director seamlessly integrates real game footage into the story, alternating with gorgeous close-ups of the actors by cinematographer Wally Pfister (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception”) that emphasize the intense spotlight focused on these games. For Beane and his team, the outside world fades away into darkness. The game is everything.

Sorkin’s script is not as self-consciously witty as it was in “The Social Network,” but the auteur screenwriter’s stamp is still all over this film in its careful prominence on dialogue. A scene where Beane and Brand finagle their way through a major deal at baseball’s trade deadline is as quietly gripping as the duel of words between Mark Zuckerberg and Erica Albright. And that’s a great way to describe “Moneyball” as a whole: it quietly grips you, carefully measuring out suspense and emotional release in a way that is simply satisfying. The game may not be for everyone, but this movie is.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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